The Editor’s Let­ter

This England - - Contents - Stephen Gar­nett

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.

Read My Blog! I now write a weekly blog on our web­site on a va­ri­ety of top­ics and with reg­u­lar up­dates about our plans for the fu­ture. Please take a look when you get the chance ( www.thiseng­land.co.uk) and leave your com­ments. I’ll be very in­ter­ested to read what you have to say.

‘Those who had been pris­on­ers of

the Ja­panese faced the big­gest chal­lenges of all, as did their fam­i­lies’

The Na­tional Burma and Malay As­so­ci­a­tion Me­mo­rial at Al­re­was. DAVID HUNTER

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