Thursday, 1 March 2018

"An Unprincipled Rogue"

First Edition cover of Bamboo and Bushido (author's collection)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a football fan. My support these days is reserved for my local non-league side, Dulwich Hamlet but my league team, albeit one from which I am serving a self-imposed exile, is Charlton Athletic.

I've written on a few occasions about the club, most recently in November 2017 when we looked at the story of Jim Mackenzie, our very first Honorary Secretary, who lost his life whilst serving with the Merchant Navy on 30 September 1917. 

Today's story began with an innocent enquiry by a poster on the club's message board which concerned someone by the name of Vic Wilson, who was mentioned in a book called "Bamboo and Bushido" by Alfred Allbury (pictured left), who served in the Royal Artillery at Singapore and was captured, along with the vast majority of his regiment at the time of the surrender on 15 February 1942. Vic's name came up in the story as being a close friend of Alfred, who described him as " unprincipled rogue with a delightful wry sense of humour and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his wife and young baby back in Charlton."

A few things in this story intrigued me; it isn't often that my little backwater of Southeast London gets a mention in a book that doesn't concern football and the fact that the two men served in the Royal Artillery - a local regiment - meant that we were quite possibly looking at men from my immediate locality and perhaps who supported the same football club. Unfortunately, Allbury's book didn't say with which regiment of the Royal Artillery they had served but a delve in one of my many reference books provided the Order of Battle which informed me that a local Territorial Army Battery - 118th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery - was present at the fall of Singapore and this encouraged me further.

A search of the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, as it so often does, provided the basis for my research. It told me that Vic Wilson had sadly not survived the war but had indeed served with 118th Field Regiment. Vic had died in captivity on 27 July 1943 and was buried at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Burma, which indicated that he was one of the many who perished whilst being employed as slave labour of the Japanese on the infamous Burma Railway.

Further research showed that Vic had been born in Greenwich in 1918 and lived at 49 Chevening Road. During the third quarter of 1939, Vic married Violet Elizabeth Wilson from 60 Inverine Road, Charlton and in the first quarter of 1940, Violet gave birth to a baby daughter, Valerie. With the onset of the Blitz, Valerie and Violet were evacuated to the relative safety of Hampshire but Vic and his colleagues, being members of the Territorial Army, had been mobilised upon the declaration of war.

The War Diary of 118th Field Regiment RA reveals early mobilisation plans (author's photo)

In normal times, 118th Field Regiment was based at their Drill Hall in Grove Park, Southeast London but inspection of the Regimental War Diary reveals that the process of mobilisation began as early as 23 August 1939 with the call-up of civilian transport and by the evening of 1 September, an advance party of 150 officers and other ranks marched from Grove Park to Cambridge Barracks at nearby Woolwich, to take up their wartime duties. Apart from a brief spell in late November 1939 when the Regiment took part in an exercise in the Ramsgate area, they remained at Woolwich Garrison until mid-January 1940 at which point they moved to Eastbourne to take up coastal defence duties. The Regiment was equipped with a mixture of 18 pounder field guns of Great War vintage and 4.5" howitzers, of similar ancestry. From late June 1940, they moved to the Norfolk coast to take up anti-invasion duties and whilst here, were re-equipped with 75mm artillery supplied from the USA. In September 1940, a further move occurred, this time to Worstead during which time the Regiment was finally re-equipped with the iconic 25 pdr guns so beloved of the Royal Artillery. Yet another move to the Scottish Borders followed in January 1941 and it was whilst here that the War Diary first mentions the possibility of a deployment to a "Tropical Climate" with training being arranged accordingly. In early April 1941, the Regiment moved to the Staffordshire area, where training continued. Study of the War Diaries tends to lend the lie to the usual perception that the British were forever unprepared for war and muddling through - the politicians may have been unprepared but the Regiment was making preparations for mobilisation over a week before the declaration of war and then training to fight in the Far East some eight months before the entry of Japan into the war.

The Regiment sailed from the Clyde on 30 October 1941 as Convoy CT 5 in eight large troopships, which in peacetime had been better known as the ocean liners ANDES, DUCHESS OF ATHOLL, DURBAN CASTLE, ORCADES, ORONSAY, REINA DEL PACIFICO, SOBIESKY and WARWICK CASTLE. The convoy took the troops as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia where they arrived on 7 November 1941. The next phase of the voyage saw them trans-shipped to six American Troop Transports, the JOSEPH T DICKMAN, LEONARD WOOD, MOUNT VERNON, ORIZABA, WEST POINT and WAKEFIELD. This particular aspect of the voyage is fascinating as the Americans were by now openly assisting their British allies some two months before their official entry into the war and were transporting the British soldiers to potentially fight against an enemy who had also not yet entered the war!

The American ships sailed as Convoy WS 12 X (a British convoy designation) even though the naval escort at this stage was entirely provided by the US Navy and proceeded via Port of Spain to Cape Town, where they arrived on 9 December 1941, two days after the USA's official entry into the war. From Cape Town, the naval escort was a mixed Royal Navy and US Navy affair and the convoy proceeded via Mombasa to Bombay, where they finally arrived on 27 December 1941. From here, the troops transferred to British ships for the final leg of the voyage to Singapore, where they arrived in mid-January 1941, barely one month before the surrender of the colony to the Japanese.

General Arthur Percival (IWM)

The fall of Singapore was arguably the biggest debacle in British military history and is a story of poor preparation, poor command  and a classic case of resources being spread too thinly. Despite this, the Allied forces enjoyed a huge numerical superiority over the Japanese, consisting of some 85,000 British, Australian, Indian and Malay forces against some 36,000 invading Japanese. The Allies however, had no tanks in Singapore and were initially convinced that any Japanese assault would come from the seaward side and not via the Malay Peninsular. The air cover was also insufficient, consisting at first of obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters and later, small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes, which were no match for the Japanese fighters and were quickly overwhelmed. As a result, there were constant air raids on Singapore and the British commander General Percival, faced with a civilian catastrophe as well as a military defeat, surrendered his forces on 15 February 1942. It was an utter humiliation and one from which British prestige in the region never really recovered.

Alfred Allbury wrote eloquently of the final hours before the surrender:

"My co-driver Vic Wilson and I sallied forth on nightly excursions to ammunition dumps scattered around the island-no transport could survive ten minutes on the road by day. Once our 15cwt was loaded, we had to deliver the shells to our guns. This called not so much for a knowledge of map reading as for the gift of clairvoyance. Jap planes and the unsuitability of the terrain for effective artillery positions kept our battery commanders roving the island in a desperate search for potential gun-sites. Those found and occupied were speedily made untenable by the sustained accuracy of the Japanese counterfire." 

"Vic Wilson and I had long been friends. He was an unprincipled rogue with a wry sense of humour, and a healthy hatred of the war that kept him from his young wife and baby back home in Charlton."

"On the morning of February 14th the first tentative shells landed among our supply-dumps. They quickly found the exact range and soon a searing bombardment developed that sent us scuttling into our fox-holes. The Japs were ranging on us from heights that overlooked the town. Bukit Timah was theirs after the bloodiest of struggles, the reservoir was stained crimson with the blood of those who had fought so bitterly to hold it, and the little yellow men whom we had ridiculed and despised were in swarm across the island. It was already theirs." 

"Next morning Vic and I set off on a last mad jaunt taking ammunition to ‘A’ Troop who were dug in behind a Chinese temple to the north of Racecourse Road. Vic drove like a maniac. He had, I found, been sampling a bottle of ‘John Haig’. We thundered along deserted roads, pitted and scarred with bomb craters. Wrecked and burnt-out vehicles lay everywhere, strewn at fantastic angles. The trolley-bus cables hung across the road in desolate festoons which shivered and whined as we raced over them. A few yards from the charred remains of an ambulance were a knot of troops gathered round a cook’s wagon. From them we scrounged a mug of hot tea and found out the guns of ‘A’ Troop were only a few hundred yards distant. We delivered our ammunition and an hour later rejoined Battery HQ close by the Raffles Hotel." 

"But late that afternoon came the news that we had surrendered. There was to be a cease-fire at four o’clock. We had fought and lost. And the ashes of defeat tasted bitter. At three o’clock all but a few of the guns were silent. Ammunition had been expended. From the hills there still came the occasional bark of a Japanese gun followed by the whine and crash of its shells. But by six o’clock, save for the spluttering of flames and the occasional explosion of ammunition, all was quiet over the island of Singapore. The carnage of the last ten days was quieted now, and in eerie silence our troops sat huddled together in puzzled but fatalistic expectancy."

"Vic and I returned to our lorry, ate some tinned bacon and biscuits and stretched ourselves luxuriously for our first uninterrupted sleep for many days. We took off our boots, smoked, talked and listened to the distant caterwauling of the Japanese." “They’ll probably,” said Vic “be crawling round us in the night, cutting off our ears.” 

"But we stretched out and slept the sleep of the utterly exhausted, while around us into the tropic rose a barbaric and discordant dirge: the victory song of the triumphant Japanese." 

With the fall of Singapore, some 80,000 Allied personnel became Prisoners of War. The Japanese had already signalled their scant regard for humanity when the day before the surrender, they had captured the Alexandra Hospital. A British lieutenant, clearly displaying a white flag, approached the Japanese in order to act as an envoy and explain the presence of a military hospital but was killed with a bayonet. As Japanese forces entered the hospital, they killed soldiers undergoing surgery and bayoneted doctors and nurses with no regard to their non-combatant status. The following day, a further 200 patients and staff were dealt with in the same manner. This was just the beginning of the now-familiar tale of atrocities committed by the Japanese.

With the exception of small parties who escaped Singapore by small boats, including a group of nineteen from the 118th Field Regiment, who safely arrived in India in April 1943 after an odyssey that lasted some fourteen months, the vast majority of those who surrendered went into captivity. After initially being held at Changi Prison, many of the men were sent to work as slave labour on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway and this is where the story of Vic Wilson ended, succumbing to Beri-Beri on 27 July 1943 and thus never returning home to his wife and daughter.

The Nominal Roll records Vic Wilson's death (authors image)

The Regiment somehow managed to maintain a Nominal Roll which records the fate of Vic and his colleagues, despite the writer of the Roll being imprisoned at Changi and the Regiment being scattered far and wide. It makes heartbreaking reading and a manual count by this writer revealed that of the 744 Officers and Other Ranks that went into captivity at Singapore, 188 died whilst POWs, which represented a loss rate of 25.27%. The vast majority of these men died from disease but inspection of the Nominal Roll reveals some who died from acts of brutality, with one cause of death recorded as "Fractured skull caused by rifle butts" not being uncommon, all of which confirms the Japanese lack of regard for Allied Prisoners of War. 

Despite the sad loss of Vic's life, this story does have an uplifting ending, as following further research, I was able to ascertain that Vic's daughter Valerie is still alive and lives in the local area. I rather tentatively wrote her a letter, explaining who I was and asking whether or not she was aware that her Father featured in a book covering the fall of Singapore. I was delighted to receive a phone call a day or so later from Valerie and had a pleasant conversation with her. Valerie doesn't remember her Dad, as she was only a baby when he went overseas for what proved to be the final time and neither was she aware of Alfred Allbury's book. Valerie's Mum had of course told her something of her Father and had frequently told Valerie that she shared many of Vic's characteristics. She also confirmed that as far as she had been told, Vic was a Charlton football fan and had attended matches at The Valley before going overseas. I sent Valerie copies of the pages in which Vic had been mentioned and subsequently had another long chat on the phone. Valerie doesn't have a photograph of Vic but mentioned that she had given all of the family photographs to her daughter, who now lives in Australia. Hopefully, I will soon be able to share a photo of Vic - a Charlton Athletic supporter and
"unprincipled rogue" who now rests far away from Southeast London.

Published Sources:

Bamboo and Bushido - Alfred Allbury, Robert Hale Limited, London 1955

Unpublished Sources:

National Archives WO 166/1530 - 118th Field Regiment RA, War Diary 01 August 1939 - 30 September 1941

National Archives WO 361/235 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Malaya: Missing Personnel
National Archives WO 361/1300 - 118th Field Regiment RA, Thailand, Casualties
Naitonal Archives WO 361/2092 - 118th Field Regiment RA. Far East, Prisoners of War, Nominal Roll

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

My Thoughts on "Darkest Hour"

Warning: Contains some spoilers:

As there have been two decent Second World War related films released in the past twelve months, I thought that following on from my review of Dunkirk in July of last year then I should perhaps share my thoughts on Darkest Hour the new film which loosely covers the first twenty three days of Winston Churchill's Premiership from his taking the job upon Neville Chamberlain's resignation on 9 May 1940 until towards the end of the Dunkirk evacuation when it became apparent that the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force was going to be saved.

Before going any further, it should be remembered that as with Dunkirk, this film is not a documentary, it is a film and therefore plays fast and loose with historical fact on occasions as well as employing one or two fairly creaky links to the plot.

Gary Oldman's performance as Churchill is quite magnificent and he simply dominates the film. The supporting performances are strong too, with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Clementine Churchill, Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain and Samuel West as Anthony Eden, particularly worthy of note.

The film opens with what proved to Chamberlain's final appearance as Prime Minister in the House of Commons and this leads to my first minor gripe as to the accuracy of the film. During the debate, the Leader of the Opposition, Clement Attlee (played by David Schofield) refers to Chamberlain by name; this of course is never allowed in the House as members are referred to as "Members" or "Right Honourable Members" but never by name. Also the Chamber of the House of Commons appears in a very strange sort of gloomy half-light, no doubt for dramatic purposes but in no way a true representation. Attlee also comes across as a somewhat weak and vacillating character, when in reality, he was a staunch anti-Nazi and supporter of Churchill as Prime Minister.

Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlain to a lesser extent are played very much as the villains of the piece, constantly trying to undermine the new Prime Minister and working behind his back to negotiate a separate peace. The reality of it was that whilst Halifax did indeed favour a negotiated settlement, he didn't go behind Churchill's back and Chamberlain, whilst he didn't wholly approve of Churchill, didn't actively try to undermine him for his own political ends as is shown in the film. 

It is true that Winston Churchill did have an initially tricky relationship with King George VI (sympathetically played here by Ben Mendelsohn) but the King did warm to his new Prime Minister and they eventually became very close friends. Whether the circumstances of the King's epiphany were as depicted in the film, one has to doubt.

The film does show Churchill's decisive nature well - firing off instructions and "Action this Day" memos to all and sundry, although the notion that Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk Evacuation was code named, was Churchill's own idea is quite false. Like the Dunkirk film reviewed in July, this movie also perpetuates the myth that the BEF was saved entirely by the "Little Ships" when in reality, only some 5-7 percent of the men were evacuated this way, with the vast majority being rescued by the Royal Navy's warships and the larger transport ships requisitioned from the Merchant Navy.

Darkest Hour does touch on what Churchill called his 'Black Dog' - his momentary periods of depression and self-doubt but this in turn leads to what this writer feels is the biggest hole in the script. At no point did the Prime Minister ever disappear down in to the London Underground to canvass the opinion of the British public as to whether to continue the war, or to sit down and negotiate with Hitler. Also, what in reality should be a less than five minute journey from St James Park to Westminster seems to last an eternity whilst Churchill seeks the opinion of almost everyone in the carriage!

The film does correctly show Churchill's meeting with members of his 'Outer Cabinet' in which he gauged their opinion, effectively outmanoeuvring any lingering opposition to his policy of fighting on and which culminates in his now famous "We shall never surrender" speech in the House on 4 June 1940.

There is a lot more to this film that the incidents described above and despite my quibbles, it remains a superb piece of film making, which I thoroughly recommend to you. If Gary Oldman should win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Churchill, it will be one of the most well-deserved and popular wins ever.

Monday, 8 January 2018

History on our doorsteps

One is never too far from history in London and reminders of the capital's wartime past are certainly still out there in abundance if one knows where to look. Over the years, I've shared photographs of wartime remnants that I encounter on my travels and in the weeks before Christmas, I set out to take some photographs of other reminders of our wartime history.

My first foray took me just across the Thames from my own home to photograph something that I had seen previously but had never thought to photograph before. A short journey on the Docklands Light Railway found me at Stratford and walking along the Greenway - a footpath and cycleway that runs along the top of the Northern Outfall sewer pipe and which also passes the Olympic Stadium. 

Tank Traps and Pillbox on the Greenway (author's photographs)

Following the fall of France in June 1940, a Nazi invasion of this country was thought to be a serious proposition and urgent arrangements were put in hand to counter the threat. Under the direction of General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander in Chief Home Forces, a series of fixed defences known as the "GHQ Line" and a further series of "Stop Lines" were put in place around London and across the southeast of England. Perhaps it was felt that German tanks could proceed easily along the Greenway as in addition to pillboxes at the Thames end of the Outfall pipe, anti-tank obstructions and a further pillbox was installed at Stratford as part of the London Stop Line Outer, or "Line A" as it was also known. General Ironside's plans for fixed defences were controversial and those commanders who had seen recent action during the British Expeditionary Force's withdrawal from France were vehement in their condemnation of this proliferation of concrete, which in France, the German Army had simply manoeuvered around, or obliterated from the air. Indeed, the then Major General Bernard Montgomery simply stated that he was in "complete disagreement with the general approach to the defence of Britain" and refused to apply it!

He was supported by General Alan Brooke, who had conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal of his II Corps to Dunkirk, who also appreciated the realities of modern, mobile warfare and who proposed to create mobile reserves close to probable German landing sites. These views in particular, coincided with those of Winston Churchill and following a conversation between the Prime Minister and Brooke during a visit to the latter's Southern Command, Ironside was sacked after only two months in the role. His replacement was Brooke and as a consequence, the "pill box madness" subsided in favour of more mobile forces. History tells us that the invasion never came and fortunately, the Olympic Park defences were never called upon to fire a shot in anger.

For my next stop, I wanted to check out a ghost sign in nearby Bethnal Green that I had been tipped off about and a short bus journey later, I found myself walking along Hereford Street searching for evidence of another facet of wartime London.

Ghost Sign in Hereford Street, Bow (author's photo)

Hereford Street is quite close to Brick Lane in the heart of the old East End of London and the faded sign on the wall of St Matthew's Church Gardens reads "FAP GAS CASES - WOMEN" - FAP stands for First Aid Post and this particular example would have been for treatment of women victims of a poison gas attack on the area. Since the Great War of 1914-18 when poison gas had been used by both sides on the Western Front, there was a great fear that any future conflict would see the civilian populations of British cities and towns subjected to the same horrors. As a consequence, gas masks had been issued to every citizen beginning in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis and gas decontamination had been one of the mainstays of the Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions arrangements established in the run-up to war in 1939. Mercifully, when war did come, neither side resorted to the use of poison gas and like the anti-invasion measures in nearby Stratford, the Bethnal Green Gas Decontamination Centre was never needed, although the First Aid Post would undoubtedly have seen a heavy workload during the Blitz.

Another short bus journey saw me at Hackney Town Hall, where at the rear of the building is the entrance to an underground bunker. This structure was one of the entrances to the Civil Defence Control Centre for the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney and as such, would have seen extensive service during the Blitz of 1940-41 and the subsequent V-Weapons campaigns of 1944-45. 

Hackney Borough ARP Control Centre (author's photo)

Another short bus journey took me to outside no. 322 Kingsland Road, Dalston where the unmistakeable shape of an air raid shelter entrance can still be seen. It is unclear as to why this house did not have the more familiar shape of an Anderson Shelter in the back garden but it is possible that the premises saw industrial use during the war, or perhaps the owner of the time could afford to pay for a privately built and what he would have hoped was a sturdier structure built deeper into the ground than the garden structure. Interestingly, the shelter now has a door with a letter box, although there was a note to the postman instructing him not to deliver any letters here!

Shelter entrance outside 322 Kingsland Road (author's photo)

On my way home - and much closer to Blitzwalker Towers - I then discovered something entirely by chance and which despite being less than ten minutes walk from my own front door, I had never spotted previously. Walking home from the bus stop via a slightly different route to normal, I was astonished to discover a set of "stretcher fences" in Marlborough Lane, Charlton. Before the outbreak of war, the British Government had assumed that civilian casualties in any future war would be on a Biblical scale with hundreds of thousands killed and injured within a few weeks of the onset of any bombing campaign. As such, suitable numbers of the tubular steel and wire mesh "ARP" Stretchers were manufactured and stockpiled to await the inevitable apocalypse. Fortunately, although the Blitz did claim some 30,000 killed and many more injured in London alone, the mass casualties never materialised and consequently, most of these stretchers remained unused, in storage. Post-war, a quick way needed to be found to replace the wrought iron railings sacrificed for the war effort and also to provide boundary fencing for the many new council estates that appeared to replace bomb damaged and destroyed housing. A quick and what proved to be lasting solution was found in the unused stretchers and today, over seventy years since the end of the war, many of these fences can still be seen at many locations across London.

Stretcher Fencing in Marlborough Lane, Charlton (author's photo)

A few weeks later saw me make another foray, this time with my good friend and designer of our main website, Sam Dorrington, who had tipped me off about some shelters and similar structures in his own locality of Carshalton and Wallington. One of these structures I was aware of but had never photographed, whilst the others were not known to me. After an intial exploration of Kenley Aerodrome (which will feature in a future blog post), Sam drove me to what he described as a "mystery location" which was actually on the Roundshaw Estate, which during the wartime years was part of the former Croydon Airport, at that time in use as a Fighter Station for the RAF. After a short walk through some woodland, we came across the unmistakeable shape of an air raid shelter, now daubed with graffiti but sustantially intact. Sam soon set to work in uncovering the outline of where the blast walls had been located.

Air Raid Shelter at Roundshaw (author's photo)

Sam hard at work uncovering the blast wall (author's photo)

Jumping back into the car, Sam soon took us to the site of another public shelter, this time in nearby Carshalton. Located on the Wrythe Recreation Ground, adjacent to Carshalton Athletic Football Club, I was aware of this shelter but had never examined it previously. This was a substantial concrete structure set into the grass. Most, if not all of the surrounding housing would have had sufficient space for an Anderson Shelter in the garden but during the war, there was a large gas works quite close to this location as well as other industry, so it is quite possible that this shelter was constructed with the workers at these facilities in mind.

The shelter at Wrythe Recreation Ground (author's photos)

Our next port of call was close to Sam's home and took the form of an Air Raid Wardens' Post, located at Mellows Park in Wallington. Made famous by Bill Pertwee's portrayal of Chief Warden Hodges in the classic comedy Dad's Army, the real-life Wardens were an extremely brave and dedicated group of men and women, who not only enforced the black-out but performed many other vital duties during the Blitz, such as supervising air raid shelters, rescue work and acting as 'First Responders' at bomb incidents. They were controlled at a municipal level, with a senior warden on duty at the local borough control, as we saw above at Hackney but operating through a network of Wardens' Posts. Sometimes, these posts were improvised affairs in the basements of existing buildings but more often than not, they were located in small, purpose-built concrete structures that looked like miniature air raid shelters. This was the case at Mellows Park and despite the sadly inevitable grafitti, the structure remains substantially intact and is locally listed.

ARP Wardens' Post at Mellows Park, Wallington (author's photo)

Our final visit for the day was just a short drive away and in the fading light, we arrived at nearby Woodcote Green in Wallington, where another similar looking but slightly wider structure to the Mellows Park Wardens' Post was located. A large mound in the grass adjacent to the brick structure suggested that a shelter was also present and that this small building was a shelter entrance, perhaps also doubling up as a Wardens' Post. A visit to the London Borough of Sutton archives will be required at some point to ascertain what exactly the arrangements were here.

Woodcote Green Shelter Entrance (author's photo)

All in all, combined with the visit to Kenley, it was a fascinating day of exploration only about an hour from my own home and thanks were due to Sam for giving up his time to show me his local wartime history.

Despite London being a vast city, there is still plenty of history, if not quite on one's doorstep, then certainly within a short distance of it. I shall be out and about again quite soon in my search for some more examples of our wartime past.