Sunday 16 August 2020

VJ DAY: My dad's role in the 'Forgotten Army'

Guest post by a Roe Green resident

We all celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day, despite social distancing, with enthusiasm. 

Our front gardens became the venue. So we put out our Union Jacks and bunting and made the most of a lovely day. People passed by and chatted, most wishing that it could have been more of a party, but agreed it was still quite good. In passing, I would mention that we would still have the 75th anniversary of VJ day to come and maybe we could party then. Rarely did anyone know what I was talking about.  The14th Army was forgotten at the time and, it seems, is still forgotten. I wonder how veterans of the campaign are feeling about that now. At Kohima, there is a huge Naga memorial stone, engraved upon it are these words : 

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.

The words are credited to Leonidas, the Spartan commander at the Battle of Thermopylae 480 years BC. They were known as The 300. The 300 are legendary and still remembered today, after 2500years. I can’t understand why it has been so difficult to remember those, whom that stone honours. They, who fought and pushed back the Japanese from India and then pursued them through Burma, only 75 years ago. 

My Dad Alfred Chambers was part of that army, not only forgotten, but mostly invisible. He belonged to Force 136, SOE in the Far East. Until the last few years nothing was known of them; like the rest of the SOE, they had all signed the Official Secrets Act, and have never breathed a word. 

He was called up in 1943 and posted to The Dorsetshire Regiment, where they underwent infantry training. Here he found himself, at thirty, almost ten years older than most the others. But, regardless of age, the regiment knocked you into shape. They were a mixed bunch, from a baker, like Dad, to a ballet dancer, who turned out to be the fittest man in the barracks. It was during this training that he had an accident. He had scaled a wall, in full pack, landed on hands and knees, and as he pushed himself up the following guy landed on top of him. Both his elbows were broken. So, he ended up in a military hospital for some time and after that had a lot of physiotherapy. Eventually, when they considered he was fit enough, he was returned to the regiment, to carry on with training. By then, most of the men he had built friendships with had moved on. So it was back to a new group and starting again.

It was during this time that he was ordered to make room, in the barracks, for three men. They were going on a mission and needed to rest for a couple of days. When they arrived he settled them, and their equipment in, and left. Only to marvel at the equipment they had, afterwards. There was nothing like it in the regiment. The next evening he invited them to the bar, for a drink. After a few pints, he asked which regiment supplied them with such marvellous gear. They couldn’t tell him. But said, that if he was really interested, to give them his name and number, they would pass it on. So he did. Never dreaming it was about to change his life. The following day they, and their equipment, disappeared. Life went, on as did the training, much the same for a few weeks .Then one day he was ordered to the Commanders office - On The Double!

On arrival at the office, he was asked what he had been up to. Informed that he would be leaving the Dorsetshires. He had been seconded to another unit. Go pack up his kit and sling his hook! It seemed he had volunteered for Special Training.

All we know now, is that he ended up at a stately home, in the middle of nowhere, which had been taken over by the military, for the duration of the war. Here he achieved the kind of skills he would never have thought possible, although, the infantry training he had already done stood him in good stead. When, it was considered that he was physically and mentally fit enough, he was shipped out to Kandy, capital of Ceylon, at that time. It was here that Force 136 had their headquarters and he was taken on as part of the organisation, soon to be promoted to Corporal.

Their role was to work behind enemy lines on intelligence, search and destroy missions. Sometimes they were dropped in, in small numbers, or up to forty, with a radio operator, who reported back to headquarters daily. These missions could last for weeks, with supplies dropped in by C47 aircraft. Those operating with SOE were issued with cyanide pills, for use to avoid capture or under duress by the Japanese. 

During some research at the National Archives, I read a message from a commander, in the field, desperately requesting headquarters to drop supplies in using camouflaged parachutes. The white ones, when caught in jungle trees, kept giving their positions away. It would seem obvious now, but, with the pressures they were under then, getting the desperately needed supplies off, was their main priority. If their radio operator was killed or captured it spelt disaster. Dad only ever told us once, about his time in the jungle. He said that they were up on a hill, surrounded by Japanese, searching frantically for them, and he had said to his sergeant, “I think we’ve had it this time, Sarge.” It didn’t look good. And his sergeant had replied, “No, we’ll be ok. They know exactly where we are. They’re on their way!” They were picked up and, lived to fight another day. Their radio operator had done a perfect job. We didn’t know he had been on a special mission. We just thought he’d had a lucky escape. 

Unlike in Europe, where agents could mingle unnoticed amongst the population, in the Far East a European face stood out. British, American or other Europeans could not operate clandestinely in cities or populated areas, and had to move from camp to camp in the jungle. So Force 136 trained indigenous people of the region. Amongst them, the Karens, who were loyal to the British and able to mix in without raising any suspicions. There were Indians and Afghans in Force 136 also involved in the Burma operation and, it goes without saying, the Gurkhas, who held a large presence there. Dad really admired the Gurkhas, they seemed, to him, to be absolutely fearless. 

In 1946, despite Churchill’s desire to keep it going, SOE was disbanded and along with it Force 136 and eventually, Dad was returned to the Dorsetshire Regiment, 2nd division. He used to say how beautiful Ceylon was and how nice the people were, he was sorry to leave. Once back with the regiment at Satpur Camp Nazik it was all preparation for Japan as part of The Commonwealth Occupation Forces. Arriving in Bombay on 16th March he embarked on the Arundel Castle, bound for Kure, Japan, disembarking 3rd April, almost three weeks later. He remained there until 1947. 

I write this in tribute to all those, who like my Dad fought and endured the hardship of jungle conditions and never lost their spirit.

1 comment:

Philip Grant said...

Thank you for sharing your Dad's story with us, and thank you Alfred Chambers for your efforts, that helped turn the tide of the Second World War in the Far East.

Stories like this form part of a history that should never be forgotten. A speaker from the Imperial War Museum, on BBC yesterday, reminded us that as well as the British soldiers who took part in the Burma campaign, there were around 300,000 Indian Army volunteers (mainly Sikhs) and around 80,000 from the East and West African regiments.

The war in Europe involved everyone in this country, so is most prominently remembered and written about (including by me). But the other "theatres of war" were just as important, and often awful and tragic (as all war is), and must not be forgotten.