The Editor’s Letter
It was wonderful to see, earlier this year, the many events that took place across England and the world to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day, 8th May 1945. I read as many of the newspaper articles and watched as much of the excellent television coverage as I could and was overjoyed at the respect and affection that were shown towards the veterans from the Second World War, and, indeed, to everyone who lived through those six years of death, danger, hardship, uncertainty and worry. A number of those survivors were, quite rightly, given guest-of-honour status at a memorable, star-studded concert in Horse Guards Parade. Did you see it? I thought those who took part, including Alfie Boe, Alexander Armstrong, Katherine Jenkins, Pixie Lott, Jane Horrocks (What a heart-wrenching moment she provided) and singalong duo Chas and Dave were superb.
Interviews with surviving servicemen and women, and those who had been forced to come to terms with air-raids, blackouts, rationing and restrictions on the home front produced some fascinating memories. Equally remarkable was the story, revealed in a television documentary, of how the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret left the security of Buckingham Palace to join the VE Day crowds on The Mall.
Unless you were there in 1945 it is impossible to know exactly what it was like, but newsreel footage of those crowds, cheering, dancing, waving flags and calling for the King and Queen, gave those of us who didn’t experience the occasion a glimpse of the joy and relief that swept the country. Seeing images of Churchill addressing the crowds in Whitehall, it was touching to learn that when he made his rousing “This is your victory” speech, the people responded with shouts of: “No, it’s yours!”
Those scenes of euphoria in May 1945 make it easy to forget that the Second World War wasn’t actually over, but after so much suffering and destruction the country was at long last free from the threat of German air raids. There was also, of course, the prospect of much-missed husbands, sweethearts, fathers, sons and brothers returning home to England. That alone was reason for massive celebrations. Earlier in the day, Churchill had broadcast a radio message to the nation from 10 Downing Street in which he said: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.”
Although we now know that the war only lasted another three months, it was believed by many at the time that the conflict with Japan could go on for years. And when I say only three months, for the Allied troops out in Asia and the Far East, it was three months of further fighting, hard labour and suffering the effects of the inhospitable climate. For many of the men, VE Day was summed up by a cartoon that was doing the rounds at the time. It depicted a working party in the Burmese jungle with the officer in charge saying to the men: “The war in Europe is over. Break off for a 10-minute smoke.”
Even as those revellers in London and elsewhere were taking down the bunting and tidying up after the street parties, thousands of miles away Australian forces were engaged in fierce fighting in New Guinea. This culminated, on 11th May, with the capture of the coastal town of Wewak and its strategically important airfield. With the Japanese driven inland, operations continued until 11th August by which time the campaign had cost the Australians 442 men killed and 1,141 injured; thousands more were struck down by illness.
The Australians, with the United States Navy and Air Force and alongside Dutch troops, were also heavily involved in the Borneo campaign of 1945, mounting a series of amphibious assaults. These reached a climax at the Battle of Balikpapan on 1st July; the port was taken but, with many Japanese refusing to surrender, the Australians suffered 229 dead and 634 wounded.
Meanwhile, in the jungles and swamps of Burma, General Slim’s Fourteenth Army repelled a final attack by the Japanese on the Mandalay-rangoon road. It is estimated that between May and August 1945 some 430 Allied troops lost their lives with nearly 2,000 wounded. The Burma campaign, which began in December 1941, was the longest campaign by the British Army and their Commonwealth allies in the entire war. Although the so-called “three m’s”, monsoon, malaria and morale, were ever-present concerns, the troops overcame both the terrible conditions and a formidable enemy (190,000 Japanese troops were killed) and played a hugely significant part in the Allies’ success.
The most savage fighting during the final stages of the war took place on the Pacific island of Okinawa. The scale of the American assault, which also included two battleships and four aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy, has been compared to the Normandy landings with over half a million US troops and 1,400 ships taking part against strongly defended positions and persistent kamikaze strikes. Progress was slow and the fighting bitter, and by the time the island was secured, on 17th June 1945, 12,500 US servicemen had been killed and 37,000 wounded, with dozens of ships and aircraft lost. Once Japan had refused the Allies’ demand of unconditional surrender, it was the fear of similar losses during an invasion of the Japanese mainland that prompted the United States to step up its bombing campaign. This culminated in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August).
In Japan, Emperor Hirohito announced to his people that there was no alternative to accepting the Allies’ terms. The formal surrender, with Supreme Commander General Douglas Macarthur and a number of Allied officers present, took place on 2nd September 1945 on board the American battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
In England, it was at midnight on 14th August that recently elected Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, broke the news to anyone who was still up and listening to the radio: “Japan has today surrendered. The last of our enemies is laid low…” The announcement was repeated next morning on what officially became VJ Day and the beginning of two days’ holiday. In towns and cities across England people danced in the streets, lit bonfires and set off fireworks. In London, crowds gathered in The Mall as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth drove to Westminster for the state opening of Parliament.
Just as in the days leading up to and after VE Day, horrific stories and images began to emerge of the Nazi concentration camps, so, in the weeks and months following VJ Day, the world became aware of the shocking treatment that had been meted out to another group for whom the end of the war in Europe had offered no relief: the Allied servicemen who were prisoners of the Japanese. More than 50,000 British service personnel were captives of the Japanese, 12,500 of whom died, as did thousands of other Allied prisoners and civilians who were incarcerated when the Japanese occupied their countries.
Once you were in the hands of the Japanese, practised specialists at their own particular form of savagery, death could come at any moment: from starvation, dehydration, overwork, beatings, torture, sickness or arbitrary execution. Known ever since as the “Death Railway”, the Burma-thailand Railway is infamous for the toll it took (12,000 Allied prisoners and 90,000 native labourers perished during its construction) but there were countless other acts of murder against individuals and groups. The Japanese also made great use of biological and chemical weapons, killing tens of thousands of Chinese with anthrax, bubonic plague and cholera. If the war hadn’t ended when it did, they had an exercise called “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night” planned for September 1945. Rather than, as its pretty name implies, scattering flowers all around, the purpose of this long-range raid was to drop bombs carrying plague-infected fleas on Southern California.
There was a great deal of frustration among Allied servicemen, not only in the Far East but in every theatre of war, at the length of time it took to get them home. In January 1946 this led, uncharacteristically, to mutinies at RAF stations across India and South Asia. When servicemen did begin to arrive back in the United Kingdom, they all had problems to overcome and adjustments to make: reacquainting themselves with wives and children, adapting to peaceful civilian life once again, and recognising how, in their absence, the role of women in society had subtly changed.
Those who had been prisoners of the Japanese faced the biggest challenges of all, as did their families. Many men were not only physically damaged by the treatment they had received, but mentally scarred. There are countless heartbreaking stories of soldiers, sailors and airmen returning from the Far East who were barely recognisable as the carefree, happy young men who had marched away. The bombs were no longer falling on their roofs, but in thousands of homes across the land the devastating effects of war continued to be felt as husbands, fathers and sons suffered nightmares, sudden rages or lapsed into distant, uncomprehending silences.
The difficulties of coming to terms with life after the horrors they had witnessed and experienced were compounded by the changing world situation. The advent of the Cold War meant that, almost overnight, those bitter enemies became our country’s allies. How on earth was someone who had suffered so much at their hands supposed to feel? I have known men who, until their dying day, would never buy anything that was made in Japan. Who can blame them? For the veterans who had fought in Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere, the feeling also grew that they were a “forgotten army” whose vital contribution to the war effort had never been fully recognised. Fortunately today there are a number of organisations such as the Royal British Legion, the Burma Star Association and the NFFWRA (National Far East Prisoners of War Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association) who are doing wonderful work, not only in making sure that the public are aware of how much we owe to those who fought and died in the Far East, but also in supporting surviving veterans and their families. It is these groups who are behind many of the events that are taking place across the country on or around VJ Day in 2015. These include, on Saturday 15th August, a Remembrance Service at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-fields, Trafalgar Square, and, at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire, a VJ Day Service and wreath-laying by the Malayan Volunteer Group. On the 16th at the Arboretum, a further service, re-dedication and wreath-laying will be held at the Far East Prisoners of War Memorial Building.
One of the hardest fought battles during the war against Japan took place at Kohima in north-east India between April and June 1944. A memorial in the war cemetery where 1,420 Allied soldiers lie bears the inscription:
When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
On the 70th anniversary of VJ Day it is up to all of us to ensure that the sacrifices of those men, and the thousands of others who fought, died and suffered during the war are not forgotten, and that each one of us, by daily acts of courage, kindness, selflessness and service, makes every one of our precious tomorrows worthy of all those lost and unfulfilled todays.
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‘Those who had been prisoners of
the Japanese faced the biggest challenges of all, as did their families’