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A Personal War Diary: Singapore, Siam and Burma 1941-5
Sir Harold Atcherley
Memoirs Publishing, 2013
It is not often one can read a recently published memoir written by a 95 year old author. Even more remarkable one who was in the untender care of the Japanese Army for four years. Like many survivors of such gruesome times he understandably harbours some guilt about emerging when so many friends died. His foreword provides a partial explanation:
“Whilst I have no doubt that luck played an important part, more relevant, perhaps, is that I was one of the relatively few, who were inoculated against cholera by the Japanese, shortly before we left by train from Singapore in early 1943. For many years I wondered why I should have been singled out, until [my wife] suggested it was probably because my surname begins with A, and any army, when in doubt, would follow alphabetical order. I am sure she is right.”
The bald data he quotes speak volumes – the death rate for Allied prisoners in Germany was c 1%, for those held by the Japanese it was 40%; in Sonkurai, a camp near the Thai/Burma border (which features later in the narrative) the rate was close to 90%. To a lay observer that would seem like government controlled genocide.
Having had an unsually cosmopolitan education - Geneva and Heidelberg Universities - no doubt contributes to his pleasant and urbane writing style.
The book starts with his enlistment into the KRRC in August 1939. By early the following year he was accepted for a commission, and whilst at OCTU did his bit as part of a very sparse defence of the Essex coast – with no armour in the whole of East Anglia – it all having been carelessly left behind at Dunkirk. On graduation he was nabbed by the Intelligence Corps, and spent some time as a very underling in the War Ops office in Whitehall.
A strand of these early non-Jap prisoner chapters is the ease with which Sir Harold finds what sound like very attractive young ladies on his peregrinations around the UK. His rapid enforced parting is of the moment. A particular relationship is struck up during his week-long stay in Cape Town on the way out East.
Atcherley gives a factual summary of the (lack of) defences of Singapore prior to its fall, and is bitterly critical of the decisions made. “Not the slightest attempt had been made to anticipate an attack from the mainland”. By then the British Cabinet and the CIGS were very wary of sending resources to (almost) lost causes, having been bruised by the loss of assets when the BEF was trounced in Northern France in 1940. Those who want a strategic background to this should read Arthur Bryant’s Turn of the Tide or Jock Colville’s memoir Corridors of Power.
As the Japs (who he refers to throughout as Nips), neared, Singapore descended into near-anarchy, with military discipline evaporating in many units. “There were literally hundreds, if not thousands of Australian, British and Indian troops – but mostly Australian - everywhere, wandering aimlessly around the streets. Many were drunk.” There is an inevitability to the fall of the island. By September 1942 summary executions of prisoners start, and Atcherley’s diary has already started its very strong focus on what he had to eat that day – for diet is crucial to survival. Just when one tires of a recital of his meals, there is usually a startling interjection: for example the presence of a padre with toxic BO!
Early 1943 and the prisoners are told to prepare for a move from their relatively benign conditions at Changi. They have no idea where they are to be sent, but are told provisions will be more plentiful at their destination. (Yes, and “the cheque is in the post”).
Readers will not be surprised to learn he became one of the 7000 members of F Force, sent to build the Burma-Siam railway. Their journey north started with an horrendous train journey in conditions of squalor and hunger, followed by a 200 mile forced march to their final destination, a camp at Sonkurai, where they lived or died (through the monsoon) in roofless huts. The camp started with 1600 inhabitants, of whom 1200 died, through cholera and malnutrition. The living shared quarters with the dying – whose suffering was unalleviated and obvious to all. Atcherley paints a Dantesque picture. By the time he returned to Singapore at the end of the year, the railway completed, of the 7000 starters, 3000 had died, and 3000 were in hospital, most simply yet to die. One of the more unparalleled acts of inhumanity in the 20th century.
Back at Changi he makes some interesting observations:
“It will also be a relief to be away from many of the Aussies [after a shake-up of camp organisation], with their immature minds, their lack of sense of humour, and their constant references to Australia, which appears to be their only interest in life. Things intellectual or cultural do not seem to interest many of them and they can be peculiarly childish. In this they resemble many Americans.” He also notes, on several occasions, the predilection of the Australians for crime.
I do not think there was a job post-war for him in the Foreign Office!
In 1944 the diary descends into a litany of diet (for diet = survival), and his ailments, which were mild by comparison to those of many of his fellow inmates. The lack of post from home, and the tardiness of its ultimate arrival, is another recurring theme. There is an increasing feeling of his lassitude. Just when one’s eyelids are about to droop, there is a moment of harsh terror or inhumanity to jolt the reader’s interest. The Jap general who demands a chess set made by a prisoner be given to him, for example.