Stephen Snelling


by steve
1 Comment

A very happy Victor Christmas…

It’s strange the way patterns emerge, if indeed that it was what they are. Sometimes, things just happen; a set of circumstances, coincidences even. But there are times when it does seem possible to look back on a string of disparate episodes and see in them some kind of connection, no matter how loose.

If this all sounds a touch meandering and mysterious, then please bear with me. What got me thinking about all this was the approach of Christmas. For me, Christmas is a nostalgic time. It brings out the child in me; that sense of eager excitement in watching loved ones drawing away the paper wrapping to reveal some hidden delight.

Adam Wakenshaw

In my case, as a child the greatest thrill was the anticipation of receiving one present in particular. It was the gift I will forever associate with Christmas, the gift without which no festive celebration would have been complete. It was, of course, the Christmas comic annual. And not just any old annual: it had to be The Victor Annual for Boys.

Every year, from 1964 until I can’t quite remember when, it was the undoubted highlight of Christmas Day. It never mattered that the one-off picture-strip stories were little different from those served up as weekly fare in the comic itself. In fact, their very familiarity was part of the charm, part of the anticipation. You knew what to expect and you knew they wouldn’t let you down. There was never any danger of disappointment in a Christmas to be shared in the company of Alf Tupper, Matt Braddock and Morgyn the Mighty. With them, you could win Olympic gold, defeat the Luftwaffe and perform miraculous feats of strength in some far-off land and still have time to stuff your face with turkey and all the trimmings as well as indulging in the odd game or two of Monopoly.

It was, quite simply, the best entertainment of all; better than all the comedies, soaps and superstar movies put together. But what I couldn’t have realised then was the rather remarkable role that The Victor would play – and continues to play – in shaping my life and interests. And this is where a pattern of sorts emerges to connect Christmas now and then with my professional career as a writer.

Tom Durrant

Who would have thought that a comic I first read as a six-year-old would inspire an interest in the life of Eric ‘Doc’ Harden VC; an interest which would culminate this year in my first biographical book in which, of course, The Victor’s original back and front cover treatment appears? But the link doesn’t end there. Only the other day, I completed an article which is scheduled for publication in the Eastern Daily Press next week. Pegged on an excellent new book about Second World War submariner VC Godfrey Place, it focuses on the role performed by a young Norwich officer who served aboard Place’s X-craft during an heroic attack on the German battleship Tirpitz. To illustrate the article, I had the usual array of photographs, courtesy of the book’s publisher, but I couldn’t resist adding the more graphic version that I originally read as a boy in The Victor of March 9, 1963 – The Hero of X-Craft Seven. Whether or not, it actually makes it into next weekend’s EDP we shall just have to wait and see.

And then there are the articles planned for next year. One in particular concerns an act of battlefield valour which is inextricably linked to a mind’s-eye image that I have carried with me in my head since I was a child. It is of a young officer, his uniform torn by bullets, leaping into a German gun-pit with nothing more than a dagger and a revolver. Ever since I first clapped eyes on Victor No 77 and read the story of Lord Lyell VC, I have been fascinated by his extraordinary act of heroism. In part, I suspect it had much to do with the wonderful art work of Harry Farrugia, for me, The Victor’s pre-eminent comic-strip artist. But more about him later, for the time being my focus remains on drawing out the real-life story of another of my comic-strip heroes which form part of The Victor’s enduring legacy.

Lord Lyell VC


by steve

Mission accomplished

It promised to be an emotion-charged day. And so it proved as Julie Wells fulfilled her own mission of remembrance by gifting all her father’s wartime correspondence to her mother to the nation.

I was privileged to be invited to join Julie and husband Bob for the presentation to Anthony Richards, head of the Imperial War Museum’s outstanding archive of documents and sound records.

Julie and Bob Wells present the family letters of Eric ‘Doc’ Harden VC to Anthony Richards, right, of the Imperial War Museum’s Documents and Sound Section.

For Julie, it meant surrendering the treasured papers which had given her a first real insight into the father she never knew. It was, as she told, Anthony, one of the hardest decisions she had ever had to make, but it was also one that she knew in her heart of hearts had to be done.

Many of those letters, which make up the core of my latest book, Commando Medic: Doc Harden VC, were written in pencil on tissue-like war economy paper, and they are now beginning to fade with age. Before embarking on the journey to London from her home in Norfolk, Julie had explained her great fear that they could literally turn to dust.

“They need tender care,” she told me. “Without proper conservation they could crumble away which would be terrible.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have them and learn so much from them. I don’t need them any more and rather than have them stuck here, slowly disintegrating, where no one can see them, I think it’s important that they go to a museum where they will be preserved and where a younger generation can read about what impact the war did have on ordinary people’s lives.”

Anthony agreed and, in receiving the extraordinary bounty of correspondence, photographs and ephemera, he assured Julie and Bob that the letters would be conserved and, where necessary, restored so that they could be saved for researchers to make use of.

Those that do just that will be in for a rare treat. Having been fortunate enough to have read them while writing my book I can honestly say that in more than 30 years of researching the lives of Victoria Cross recipients I have never ever seen such a wonderfully rich run of personal letters so full of fascinating human insights. What makes them rarer still, in my estimation, is that they were written by an ordinary ranker rather than an officer.

For Julie, the act of leaving them in the care of the Imperial War Museum was evidently a wrench, but deep down, I suspect, she felt that, at last, a weight had been removed from her shoulders as the burden of responsibility for preserving these important documents which her mother had faithfully kept had been safely passed on.

On a personal level, it was good also to meet up with two RAMC Association stalwarts, Pat Higgins, who was such a help to me during my research, and Terry Hissey, who shares my passion for Victoria Cross and George Cross research and who is himself the author of two books on recipients of the GC.

The day itself was rounded off in convivial surroundings, in the Union Jack Club, where Bob, Julie and I were guests of Pat, in a restaurant appropriately situated next to the impressive Victoria Cross Gallery where the photograph of Doc Harden is displayed next to two of the most famous of all medical heroes – the double VCs, Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse.


by steve

Salute to ‘Doc’, ‘Cabbie’, ‘Cakes’ et al…

It’s been a while coming. Looking back on my correspondence I can trace the roots of my interest in Eric ‘Doc’ Harden VC to the mid-1990s. It was around that time I began contacting veterans of 45 Royal Marine Commando with a view to publishing something about the only army medic in the Second World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

At that time, I was thinking only in terms of a chapter in a wider book. But all those plans were overtaken a few years back by a much more ambitious project, based around the discovery of a treasure trove of letters ‘Doc’ had written before and during the conflict to his wife, Maud, which had been faithfully kept, originally by their son, Bob, and, following his death, their daughter, Julie.

The result is: Commando Medic: Doc Harden VC, published by Spellmount, an imprint of The History Press, which is now available, as the saying goes, in all good bookshops (or at least, I hope it is). Any problems, then get in touch with me!

As contestants on X-Factor are liable to say, it’s certainly been quite a journey.

My only sadness is that more of the veterans who helped me almost 20 years ago aren’t alive to see the conclusion of the project. Men like Don Thomas, who was living in faraway Australia, and Neil Patrick, in Scotland, were great supporters. Neil, in particular, gave tremendous assistance, supplying a wonderfully vivid account of an action in which his own heroism was deservedly recognised with the award of a Military Medal. Two men I would dearly like to have seen the finished book were Bobby Cory, the officer whose life Eric helped to save at the cost of his own, and Johnny Haville, who, along with Dickie Mason, assisted him in his selfless exploit and merited far more than the measly mention in despatches that he was given. Sadly, both passed away during the book’s prolonged gestation. I hope that their families will feel I have done their memory justice.

At least I was able to thank, in person, two of the ‘old stagers’ who helped me – Fred ‘Cabbie’ Harris and Derrick ‘Cakes’ Cakebread. Not only were they able to tell me their own stories, but they were able to guide me through 45’s long struggle from the training grounds of Scotland and southern England, via the beaches of Normandy through to Eric’s final battle in the snow-covered potato fields of Holland.

Salute to my heroes: Derrick ‘Cakes’ Cakebread and Fred ‘Cabbie’ Harris

Their assistance has been invaluable and their companionship is something I shall always treasure. Their devotion to honouring the memory of their fallen comrades and ‘Doc’ Harden, in particular, has been an inspiration and is worthy of a book in itself.

For details of the book and to read an example chapter visit my website. To order a copy, click on the link to Amazon or check out The History Press website.


by steve
1 Comment

Striking lucky on the trail of Bill Harvey

Research is, to steal a well-worn footballing analogy, a funny old game. One minute you’re sailing along, turning up fascinating material at every turn and the next you’ve come to a grinding halt that can prove terminal for your plans.

Patience, it seems, to me is a prerequisite for anyone involved with digging up the past. And, if you can afford to wait long enough, your forbearance may be duly rewarded.

Well, such was the case, for me.

For a decade or more now, I have been steadily gathering material with a view to one day writing a book about the ‘Stay Behind’ parties who were trained to fight a guerrilla war behind Japanese lines in Malaya following the fall of Singapore. My main focus has been on one of the men recruited to resist the Nipponese army of occupation – William Percy Harvey, a Norfolk farmer’s son from Hainford, a small village just north of Norwich.

Bill Harvey: inspiration behind a quest

Originally, my interest was stirred by a Chinese-Malay historian’s research into his activities as part of a wider study of the involvement of planters in the war against Japan. His fascination brought him to Norwich in search of material on Bill Harvey. I wrote a story for the EDP about his quest and, though I didn’t know it then, the germ of a book idea had taken a hold of me.

Later on, I met Bill’s niece and some of his contemporaries – he worked at Norwich Union for a while during the 1930s, before heading out to Malaya just before the outbreak of the second world war to work on a rubber plantation. Given access to his correspondence and to letters written by some of his Malayan colleagues, I wrote two more articles, chronicling his pre-war career and his wartime exploits.

Most recently, I wrote an article for the EDP about his daring escape from Japanese captivity 70 years ago. It was a gallant effort which ended in tragedy as all those who managed to break out of the notorious Pudu Jail were betrayed, recaptured and executed.

Before being ‘put in the bag’, however, Bill had taken part in some of the most extraordinary guerrilla actions of the war in Malaya. During a period that became known as the ‘Mad Fortnight’, he and two other members of Left Behind Party No 1 created mayhem along the Japanese lines of communication. In time, they would be credited with derailing no fewer than seven trains, damaging or destroying some 40 vehicles and inflicting anywhere between 500 and 1,500 casualties.

Much of that period has been covered in other books, most famously in Freddie Spencer Chapman’s epic tale of survival, The Jungle Is Neutral. As leader of the party, Spencer Chapman, who remained at large for the remainder of the war, was able to give a gripping first-hand account. My hope was to be able to flesh out the role played by Bill Harvey, his second in command, and to chart his progress, through to captivity and his brave bid for freedom. The trouble was finding some of the men who were with him, either as members of the clandestine SOE force or as prisoners in Pudu. Eventually, I did manage to track down a few men who remembered him from his time in captivity, but I continued to draw a blank so far as his guerrilla work was concerned. Until a few days ago.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I discovered, via the wonderful Children of Far East Prisoners of War Association, a link with the third man in Bill’s Left Behind Party – a former regular soldier and pre-war sapper, John Sartin. It turned out his son, Dave, had joined the association and, although his father died some years ago, he has been able to furnish me with some notes that his father had written, concerning his role as an explosives expert in the three-man team.

That was great news in itself. But then came a further breakthrough, just days later. Trawling through the internet, as I am wont to do from time to time, I came across a site relating to the Malayan Volunteers (the Malayan equivalent of the TA). Clicking on to the ‘forum’, I scrolled down a few items until one name leapt from the screen – Frank Vanrenen.

Frank Vanrenen: research breakthrough

Frank had been a pre-war friend of Bill’s. A pre-war plantation manager and volunteer soldier, he had taken part in one of the most audacious raids of the ill-starred Malayan campaign. Along with Bill, he helped guide an Australian force in a commando-style attack that was one of the few successes achieved by the British. Together, they were then recruited to the SOE-run resistance force. Both eventually ended up in Pudu Jail where they became the leading lights in one of the war’s boldest escapes.

As well as smuggling arms into Pudu, they gathered together supplies of food and had duplicate keys made. Months of preparations were followed by an escape that went like clockwork. Eight men, split into two parties, got away and initially made good progress. But then things started to go awry. Two of a three-man party were recaptured two days after the breakout; the third man was at large for a fortnight. The party led by Bill and Frank fell foul of treacherous natives 18 days after slipping out of Pudu. Returned to prison, they were shackled and placed in cells until one day in September they were led away to a truck, driven to a nearby cemetery, told to dig their own graves and shot.

All of that, I already knew, but now, at last, there was a link with Frank. A niece was trying to trace anyone who knew anything about her father, Frank’s brother, who had also been a planter and was captured at the fall of Singapore. I fired off an email, asking if she knew anything of her uncle’s activities. She didn’t, but she could do better than providing me with information – she could put me in touch with Frank’s daughter who has been gathering material on the father she never knew.

And that’s precisely what she did. Since then, I have had some illuminating email correspondence with Sheila Ellis (nee Vanrenen). Better still, we are planning to meet up in a little more than a week’s time to share our research.

Sometimes, just sometimes, luck really does seem to be on your side. But to be lucky twice within a week really is the stuff of a researcher’s dreams…

So, watch this space for developments in the Bill Harvey odyssey.


by steve

Ticket to Hell

It is an infamous episode that seems to be passing almost unnoticed. And yet no other single event during the second world war claimed more East Anglian lives or inflicted greater suffering.

I refer to the beginning of work on the Burma-Thailand Railway, the so-called Railroad of Death, that cost an estimated 102,000 lives to build. Indeed, so many men succumbed during its construction that it has been said that one man died for every sleeper laid.

The overwhelming majority  – perhaps as many as 90,000 – were Asian labourers, but around 12,400 Allied prisoners of war from a total work force of 61,000 also died, victims of disease, starvation, cruelty and neglect.

Jungle ordeal: prisoners of war in one of the railway camps.

Most were men captured when Singapore surrendered in February 1942 with a large proportion belonging to the ill-starred 18th (East Anglian) Division which had been diverted from its planned deployment in the Middle East and sacrificed on the altar of political unity.

I have been remembering these luckless men over the past few days; re-reading some of their pitiful accounts as I prepare to write an article for the Eastern Daily Press, marking the 70th anniversary of this most wretched of all wartime milestones.

I say anniversary, but there is no particular date that may be said to be the precise starting point for this hideously miraculous feat of engineering. Preparation for the work had begun as early as the spring with advance parties leaving prison camps on Singapore island in April. But construction did not really get under way until the autumn, by which time new camps had sprung up at either end of the line.

Few of the prisoners who left Singapore during the summer and autumn of 1942 had the slightest idea of where they were headed or what they were to do whenever they reached their destination. Most, in their naïveity, imagined that no matter what their fate it could not be any worse than anything they had previously experienced.

Many, like Charlie Carpenter, a pre-war regular serving in the 5th Royal Norfolks, were keen to go. “Although the work was certain to be arduous, the rewards, we were promised, would be greater. A bigger rice allowance, more fresh meat and vegetables and we would be paid at the rate of 20 Japanese dollars a month – enough to buy extras.”

Rarely can so many have been so utterly duped.

It took only a matter of days for the dreadful truth to dawn on them – the illusion lasting no longer than the miserable 1,200 mile rail journey north, through Malaya into Thailand.

Eddie Knowles was among a party of East Anglians who departed Singapore in October 1942 for ‘destination unknown’. The agony began the moment they stepped aboard the trains with 31 men crammed into a single 30ft long steel box truck.

Eddie Knowles: Norfolk soldier turned railway slave labourer.

“As hot and uncomfortable as it was in the daylight hours with no ventilation except when we were able to open the side sliding doors… it was far worse at night,” wrote Eddie. “It was possible to stand or sit down, but lying down to sleep was out of the question…”

To Charlie Carpenter the journey was simply “hellish”. “It was hot and sticky, and some of the men were already suffering from a mild form of dysentery. The stench became unbearable…”

Yet, bad though it was, what followed during the year-long construction programme would prove infinitely worse. Worse, in fact, than their worst nightmares.

Indeed, for all too many, that gruelling train ride northwards would prove a one-way journey. “We didn’t know it at the time,” wrote Eddie, “but most of the lads in our rail truck were destined never to leave the Far East again…”

Under fire: the bridges over the Kwai at Tamarkan shortly after the end of the war. The effects of Allied air force bombing is clearly visible.

An infamous anniversary to be sure. But one that should never be forgotten.


by steve

The road to Senggarang

Batu Pahat isn’t a place that features in too many tourist guidebooks. Indeed, mention it to most western travellers and the most likely response is a blank ‘never heard of it’ kind of expression. The same would have certainly been true for most members of the hapless 53rd Brigade who found themselves hurried out of Singapore onto the road to northern Johore in the middle of January 1942.

The centre of Batu Pahat with the high ground that the Japanese sought to capture.


My journey of discovery aboard a rather roomy bus from Johore Bahru’s Larkins terminus was, I suspect, altogether more comfortable than that taken by territorials from Cambridgeshire and Norfolk hastily despatched north in a desperate effort to stem the Japanese advance 70 years ago.

Together with my wife, Sandra, I was headed in search of the positions they had held during their first unsettling encounters with an emboldened enemy buoyed by their successes further up-country during the first few weeks of the Far Eastern war.

The view westwards from Senggarang bridge. Many of the 53rd Brigade headed this way en route to the sea and evacuation.

It wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Much, of course, has changed in the seven decades since patrols from the 5th Royal Norfolks patrolled the roads leading out of Ayer Hitam and Yong Peng and the 2nd Cambridgeshires sent small parties to ‘recce’ the forested areas around Batu Pahat. Indeed, Batu Pahat has altered almost beyond recognition from the rough sketch plans I had faithfully copied from a Cambridgeshire officer’s wartime diary. But, as I soon discovered, when we stepped off the air conditioned bus into the sweltering heat of northern Johore, certain landmarks remain unaltered – most notably the river that the Cambridgeshires were sent to guard and the surrounding hills.

Chinese cemetery near Batu Pahat that is believed to have been the scene of heavy fighting in January 1942.

Helped by the local harbourmaster and his friendly assistant, we were guided along the course of the river as it heads out into the Malacca Straits, beneath the old and the new lighthouse (part financed by the Japanese, irony of ironies). On a day of baking sunshine and unbeatable hospitality, it was difficult to imagine this heavily wooded landscape – not as much jungle as plantations, these days – as a war zone, yet all too easy to understand how small forces of Japanese could have landed unobserved and melted into the green smother, infiltrating between the thinly spread units scattered about Batu Pahat.

Looking down on the old lighthouse and the Straits of Malacca near Batu Pahat.

Having made our own slow progress, past an assortment of deserted food courts, a closed computer café and customs offices, we looked out across the muddy waters to the far bank where some kind of dredging appeared to be going on in preparation for further development. The first thing that struck me was the breadth of the river. It was far wider than I had imagined and it seemed as though a good deal of tree clearance had taken place, though how recently I could not say. On the face of it, the river seemed to afford great advantages for defenders and immense difficulties for any force trying to make an opposed crossing. All the more reason, therefore, for the Japanese to render such an operation unnecessary by out-flanking the defences.

The bridge at Senggarang. The original wartime bridge was blown up by 18th Division engineers.

For all their efforts to forestall any further Japanese advance, the Cambridgeshires and Norfolks found themselves fighting not on the riverside but on the heights to the south and east of the town. So, it was to these points we headed on our second day’s battlefield tour. Thanks to a driver arranged by an extremely helpful manager at the B & S Boutique Hotel (if you ever venture to Batu Pahat in search of the authentic Malay experience, be sure to stay at the BS!), we headed initially southwards on the road to Senggarang. First stop was a Chinese cemetery where small parties of the Cambridgeshires and Norfolks had sheltered during the confused fighting for the high ground overlooking the brigade’s line of retreat. These days, Batu Pahat sprawls much further south along the road, but the brooding hills remain, much taller than I imagined. Much of the forest – the East Anglian troops always referred to it as jungle – which fringed the road in 1942 has been cleared to make room for more development, but there is still enough to give an impression of what it must have seemed like to the disorientated soldiers as they trudged warily and wearily south only to find themselves cut-off at a small village called Senggarang.

The view westwards from Senggarang bridge. Many of the 53rd Brigade headed this way en route to the sea and evacuation.

Today, Senggarang is larger than it was in 1942, but remains relatively small. A new bridge straddles the river where the old one was blown by 53rd Brigade engineers in order to slow the chasing Japanese. In the prickly heat of mid-morning we trekked around the blocks of concrete buildings and parades of shops that have long since replaced the mainly wooden buildings that once lined the main road and gave shelter to the wounded 70 years ago. Hopes of finding some evidence of what had occurred here all those years ago were sadly dashed, but at least we were able to get a sense of the place and a sight of the swampy country into which hundreds of East Anglians retreated, leaving their transport wrecked and ablaze on the edge of the road.

Plantations south east of Senggarang. Near here Japanese blocks barred the way south and led the British and Indian troops to abandon their transport and head into the jungle.

Turning about, we drove back to Batu Pahat before heading north-east to the bridge at Parit Sulong, scene of an infamous massacre perpetrated by the Japanese against wounded Australian and Indian troops left behind by the force falling back from the River Muar. A memorial plaque placed there by the 2/19th Battalion Association of the AIF offers mute testimony to the grim struggle that took place here. Just like the Cambridgeshires at Batu Pahat, the Australians found, to their cost, that the Japanese had infiltrated behind them. The bridge which should have been held by units of the 53rd Brigade had been abandoned and the Japanese took full advantage of the 53rd Brigade’s indiscipline and lack of combat experience to occupy the position without a fight. From there, we ventured towards Yong Peng in search of the Bukit Pelandok defile that had been defended none too well by the 6th Royal Norfolks. It proved something of a disappointment. Our taxi driver had never heard of it and, though we saw evidence of steep hills rising from the flatlands, we were unable to locate this strategically important position whose capture by the Japanese did much to shake morale and prise open the brittle British defences in northern Johore.

Australian plaque on the bridge at Parit Sulong, scene of fierce fighting and a brutal massacre of wounded.

The hills on the side of the road between Parit Sulong and Yong Peng give some idea of the difficulties facing the newly arrived 53rd Brigade.

Perhaps next time…


by steve
1 Comment

In the shadow of disaster

It wasn’t exactly a journey into the unknown, but it has certainly been a journey full of discovery. Our Malaysian odyssey was inspired, at least in part, by a desire to provide a greater understanding of the experiences and ordeals endured by the unfortunate men of the 18th (East Anglian) Division during the second world war.

Known as Churchill’s ‘Floating Division’, they left Britain in October 1941 bound for the Middle East only to be diverted, mid-voyage, to bolster the crumbling defence of Malaya and Singapore after the Japanese entered the war. It was their misfortune to be sent as reinforcements to a lost cause and to fight battles for which they were signally ill-prepared against an enemy about whom they knew precious little.

Over the years, I have read much about their wretched struggles, in the form of diaries and reports that they wrote at the time and in books that were published subsequently. All gave vivid descriptions of the trials and tribulations faced, of the difficulties in combatting not just a battle-hardened and fanatical enemy but an alien climate and inhospitable terrain. Theirs was indeed a miserable fate, abandoned as political pawns to an already doomed struggle. Their war would be remembered not for any glorious victories but for their grim battle for survival which followed the most disastrous defeat in British military history. The ghastly stories of the disease-ridden jungle labour camps have become their enduring legacy as cruel incarceration came to overshadow their active involvement in the war.

For 70 years, their role, not just in the catastrophic Malayan campaign, but in the defence of Britain against threatened Nazi invasion has been largely ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented. I have long desired to right these wrongs by writing a comprehensive account of the 18th Division’s war, from the outbreak of hostilities to the surrender of Singapore and the pitifully few successful escapes that followed. To that end, I have been gathering first-hand accounts and researching contemporary diaries and reports as well as interviewing as many of the dwindling band of survivors as I can. But to fully understand what these men went through I always knew that it would be necessary to visit Malaysia and Singapore, to see for myself the kind of terrain they had to fight in and to experience something of the climate about which they wrote so bitterly.

This year, at last, provided the opportunity and, my goodness, it has certainly given me an insight into the difficulties they must have faced. Just like the majority of those young East Anglian territorials who stepped ashore in Singapore in January 1942, this was my first experience of the tropics and south-east Asia in particular. No amount of reading could have possibly prepared me for the strength-sapping humidity, where the shortest of strolls becomes a sweat-drenching ordeal and where energy seeps away as quickly as the traffic that continually throbs by. To imagine having to run and fight in such conditions is nigh impossible. And then there is the terrain.

My first encounter with the hot, sticky jungle-infested hill country in which the men of the 18th Division found themselves fighting was on Singapore Island, courtesy of Jon Cooper, manager of the ground-breaking Adam Park Project, an archaeological investigation of one of the most remarkable battlefields of the disastrous Malayan campaign.

On the trail of the 18th Division: Jon Cooper and one of the scrapings thought to have been manned by the Suffolks during the doomed defence of Singapore

Before making our way to Adam Park, however, we headed to the British Club, not far from the Swiss Rifle Range, scene of the 4th Suffolks’ grisly encounter with a unit of Japanese light tanks. From the roof of the building we had a view across the heavily wooded ground that led towards the heights of Bukit Timah hill. This densely wooded country would have been difficult to advance through for troops well-versed in jungle fighting, but for the men of Tomforce, only recently landed on the island, who had trained for open warfare, Middle Eastern-style, this ground represented a formidable obstacle. It was all too easy to understand units becoming separated and lost and even more easy to imagine Japanese troops infiltrating behind them as they pushed forward.

I couldn’t help thinking of the likes of Tom Eaton and Mike Ashton, officers of the 4th Royal Norfolks, who I had interviewed years earlier, trekking through this wild landscape on their way to the high ground that would mark the limit of their advance. How incongruous my interview with Mike now seemed. In the comfort of a Broadland cottage I recall hearing his terrifying tale of being cut off near Bukit Timah and of having to fight his way back to British lines. Now I was looking at the kind of ground he would have had to find a way through. That he made it back when so many of his men did not was indeed a minor miracle.

The sense of incongruity continued as we made our way to the exclusive Singapore Island Country Golf Club. It was across these gently undulating fairways where golf buggies now roam that Japanese tanks advanced towards the positions occupied by the 18th Division. Fringing the manicured fairways was a tangle of trees and undergrowth through which Jon led us towards some shallow scrapings which he believes could well be the remains of foxholes hastily dug by East Anglian troops who found themselves suddenly pitched into the front line of a struggle that was already lost.

It was the first tangible reminder of the past, but before the day was out there would be many more echoes of the division’s last stand…

The story of my journey in the footsteps of the East Anglian soldiers of the 18th Division will continue in future blogs.

You can find more details about The Adam Park Project (TAPP) on Facebook and a variety of internet sites.


by steve

Singapore etc

After months of anticipation, Malaysia and Borneo beckons. It’s hard to believe that in a few days’ time I shall be walking sites that I have spent years reading about and researching.

For the best part of a week I will be travelling in the footsteps of so many men who I have interviewed and admired: men like Fred Eva and Tom Eaton, Bob Hamond and Tony Ferrier.

My plan is to explore the battlefields of Singapore and Johore where the ill-starred 18 (East Anglian) Division fought in the first two weeks of 1942. With the help of locally-based expat, Jon Cooper, manager of The Adam Park Project, I will begin my journey in the old Singapore suburbs where the men of the 1st Cambridgeshires, 4th, 5th and 6th Royal Norfolks and 2nd Cambridgeshires together with a range of ancillary units made their final stand during that fateful February. From there, I shall be heading off to northern Johore and the area around Batu Pahat where the 53rd Brigade were hurried into action, barely 48 hours after they walked off the Mount Vernon following an epic three-month voyage that began in the UK in October – two months before Japan entered the war!

At Batu Pahat, I shall make full use of the diaries, complete with sketch plans, made by the late Jimmy Clancy, a subaltern in the 2nd Cambs, who was seriously wounded during the fighting around the village of Senggarang. Like a number of men from the Royal Norfolks, he had to be left behind with a volunteer medical party when the remnants of the brigade and an assortment of other units were forced to break-out, some heading inland through the jungle and the remainder moving towards the coast where they evacuated by flat-bottomed river boats.

One place I am keen to see is the defile at Bukit Pelandok where the 6th Royal Norfolks endured its rough baptism of fire – from the air and their own side! Eventually, they were pushed off the two hills which they were guarding and, controversially, other Norfolk troops withdrew from a nearby bridge at Parit Sulong, thus allowing the Japanese to cut-off a retreating force of Australians and Indians. Many were able to break through the enemy cordon, but those wounded men left behind were slaughtered by the Japanese.

Singapore 70 years ago: the humiliation of surrender in February 1942

It promises to be an emotional journey, not so much of remembrance but of discovery, and I hope that it will provide ample material for a planned book on the men of 18 Division who suffered the worst fate of any British force sent overseas during the second world war.

In the weeks that follow I shall keep you updated on my progress, initially as I retrace their steps and later as Sandra and I embark on our own mini-adventure, deeper into Malaysia and Sabah, with its links to another wartime tragedy near the northern town of Sandakan, en route to a rendezvous with the orang-utans of Sepilok…


by steve

Casualties of war

The story of Norfolk’s ‘lost villages’ and the great War Office ‘land grab’ have long been a source of fascination. Several years ago, I interviewed a woman whose family was among those given their marching orders in July 1942. The bitterness that came from a sense of betrayal was still plainly evident more than half a century later.

There was no question that most, if not all, of the villagers turfed out of their homes to make way for the army’s new training ground were under the impression that they would be able to return to their old haunts and old existence at the end of the war.

Of course, what no one realised at the time was, what, if anything, would be left of their homes to return to. Nor could anyone foresee the greatly altered political situation that would exist with all the heightened tensions associated with the beginnings of what became known as the Cold War.

That promises were broken is clear, but circumstances had changed and peace in 1945 arrived with the threat of more and possibly more catastrophic conflict just around the corner.

But knowing all of that scarcely lessens the overwhelming feeling of pity for all those hundreds of Breckland families who sacrificed their way of life for a victory that brought with it no relief from the suffering endured.

Researching the saga afresh for an EDP article merely added to the poignancy of it all. What struck me most forcibly was the extraordinary loyalty displayed by people on the brink of eviction. Government officials and senior army officers were similarly awed by the selflessness and generosity of spirit shown in the face of appalling adversity.

Some of the correspondence I found in the National Archives made for heart-breaking reading. Take the letter written by Lt Gen Kenneth Anderson. Having addressed villagers at an open-air meeting, where he made clear that the army’s take-over would turn them into ‘refugees’ in their own country, he wrote to the Secretary of State at the War Office:

“I can assure you that I have done and will do everything I can to help those in trouble as a result of this action, which is a thoroughly unpleasant one – but just has to be done…

I was amazed at the loyalty and understanding with which they received the bitter news: it was quite splendid and made a thoroughly distasteful task much easier… My way was made very easy by the splendid lead given by Lord Walsingham. He will be nearly ruined: loses his own home and over 400 tenants and villagers go with him. Although he had fought to the utmost against the expulsion, by all legal means, yet in public he has given manly, sane and loyal counsel to his people – who still have a touching feudal faith in his powers!”

The army’s local land agent was no less impressed by the villagers’ response to the dreadful news. “Saddening though the occasion was,” it was reported, “the bearing of these Norfolk men and women was extraordinarily fine. There was no hostility and the speakers were even applauded…”

All of which merely adds to the sense of injustice. Of all the sacrifices made during the second world war, there were few greater than that made by the small communities of four Norfolk villages which fell victim not to an invasion by an enemy power but by soldiers fighting for a common cause, in their name.


by steve
1 Comment

Out of the shadows…

The wonder of the internet never ceases to amaze me.

When I embarked on my Norwich Blitz odyssey almost two years ago my head was filled with familiar images lifted from more than three decades of journalism. Most were stark, black and white photographic studies of destruction taken from the outstanding George Swain collection. But a few were paintings; wild, garish canvasses that contrived to turn incendiary-stoked fires into pictures of haunting beauty.

They were the work of Stanislaw Mikula, an enigmatic Polish soldier-artist who fate had placed in the city at the height of the Baedeker raids.

The destruction of Caley's chocolate factory, April 1942.

My first glimpse of his stunning work was entirely by chance. One of his paintings was featured in an exhibition at the Norwich Castle. In an article inspired by my discovery I wrote of being held “spellbound” by the painting:

“At its heart was a great swirl of vivid colour and the contorted skeleton of a factory smothered in flames and a pall of smoke that seemed to hang like a translucent shroud in the night sky. Slowly, I began to take in the rest of the painting. The dark jumble of buildings reduced to twisted rubble. A window hanging loose, tilting at a crazy angle. And a trail of hose-pipes snaking through the debris towards a huddle of figures dwarfed by the catastrophe they are powerless to contain.

There was no escaping the fierce intensity of that pink and orange inferno, so dazzling you could almost feel the searing white heat.

I had seen this tortured scene many times before, but never like this…”

The painting was of Caley’s chocolate factory being consumed by flames during the second terrible Baedeker raid at the end of April 1942. It was, as I found, one of six large-scale works held by in the Castle Museum’s collection. Surprisingly, given its dramatic rendering of one of the most iconic moments in the city’s wartime history, it had been rarely displayed during the previous 50 years.

It made me want to find out more about Norwich’s unsung Polish Blitz artist.

Who was Stanislaw Mikula? I did some digging with the help of Norma Watt, then assistant keeper of art at the Castle Museum. I discovered that before the war he had specialised in ecclesiastical art and portraiture and had studied in Paris with Andre Derain, a friend of Matisse and prominent member of the Fauves Group who turned impressionism into an exaltation of pure colour.

But what of the character of the man? He remained frustratingly elusive. The fragments unearthed pointed to a charismatic figure and a chequered life; he was jailed for four years for defrauding a friend out of more than £60,000 to pay off gambling debts, he owned a night club in Mayfair, he was married to a Polish singer and apparently died in London in 1977 after falling down a spiral staircase while attending a friend’s party.

The only flesh to add to these bare bones came from a Liverpool-based artist. Patricia Rhodes had known Mikula during the war and had kept in touch with him to the end of his life. She laughed as she recalled how, while serving his prison sentence, he had painted the portrait of the governor. “You couldn’t keep him down,” she said. “He was very flamboyant and he was a very good artist too. He could really paint if he put his mind to it, but he enjoyed the high life too much…”

And that was broadly it.

The sky ablaze.

When I came to write Norwich: A Shattered City I had hoped to write of Mikula and his extraordinary life, but in the end there was not space enough and I had to content myself with publishing a few black and white images of his work which scarcely did justice to his immense talent. I began to think in terms of featuring in him a new book, loosely based on eyewitness accounts of the air raids on Norfolk during the second world war. But with my biography of Doc Harden VC taking up most of my time, I had done nothing more about it when, out of the blue, I received a ‘response report’ to this website from a Charles Coupland in Australia.

He had read my blog about the Norwich Arts Centre exhibition which featured some of Mikula’s work on a computerised ‘loop’. And what he had to say fair took my breath away…

“I am Stanislaw Mikula’s son… He was my biological father. I grew up in the South of England… away from Stash. It was very pleasing to see him publicly recognised in his adopted country. Before the Norwich Exhibition I had no idea he was even in Norwich during the blitz there…”

Since then, he has emailed me some more biographical information, pieced together from his own research over the past 12 years, after discovering that Mikula was his father.

This is what he had found out:

“Stanislaw Jan Mikula was born in Tarnopol , in what is now the Ukraine in 1907.  He died in London in 1977.

Stanislaw’s father was Wadyslaw Mikula (described in Stash’s Army record as a Public Official) and his mother was Irma Mikula (nee Grabowski). As far as I know he had a brother called Alfred.

At some point this Polish family moved to Lvov where young Stanislaw grew up in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After the First World War Western Ukraine became part of the new Polish Republic.

In the 1920s Stanislaw went to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  On returning to Poland he worked as a painter, a stage designer for theatre, as well as working on the decoration of synagogues and churches.  I have talked to an old friend of his from this period who still lives in London and we described much of that period as a happy one for he and his friends who enjoyed a fair bit of drinking and general roistering.

During the late 1930s he was a cadet officer in the Jazowieckich 14 Cavalry Regiment.

At the outbreak of WW2 he and the Cavalry Regiment managed to escape from Poland eventually ending up in France where they became part of the French Army.  While in Brittany Stanislaw painted a Black Madonna for the small town where the Regiment was billeted.  (I haven’t had the opportunity to see this work even though I’ve been in France a number of times over the last few years).  How he arrived in UK I don’t know.

Perhaps via Dunkirk ?

Now part of the British Army, his Regiment was sent to Biggar in Scotland.  He painted a field altar for his Regiment which stayed in Scotland until the fall of Communism in Poland.  It is now housed in a girl’s boarding school run by nuns at a place called Szymanów not far from Krakow.

Baedeker blaze in Norwich.

He was in Norwich in 1942 as we know and also in London where at some point he met my mother who worked for SOE as a coder.

He was demobbed in 1946 and worked as an painter, did some film work, eg, in the film starring Ingrid Bergman “Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. He played a Russian train inspector in that film. In fact he contributed stage designs and the occasional performance to Polish theatre in London.

During the 1950’s he managed a night club in Green Street Mayfair. In 1957 he married Sophia Terne a Polish Jewish singer who was the Polish .equivalent of Vera Lynn.  She had travelled with Polish troops and sang for them through their Italian campaign, including at Monte Cassino.  She sang at the Green Street night club which was very popular for a time with film stars like James Mason and people like Princess Margaret.

I believe Stanislaw also did some interior design plans for restaurants as well as himself running a restaurant in South Kensington for many years called Tsarevich.

After his death and funeral at the Brompton Oratory Church in London his ashes were scattered in Poland.

Zoshie (as she was known) Terne died in the early 90’s and is buried in London.”

What an extraordinary story. And it is not over yet. More information and photographs are promised. At long last, it seems, Stanislaw Mikula is emerging from the shadows.

Watch this space…