Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Freddy Spencer Chapman's One Man, Three Year War Against the Japanese.

The fate of many a POW of the Japanese. Freddy Spencer Chapman kept his head, and drove the Japanese crazy for three years.

Many thanks to stas for forwarding this London Daily Mail article. It reminds me of the Forrester novel Rifleman Dodd (required reading in Sipsey Street haunts) but it has the added advantage of being true.


The one man army: How a Cambridge-educated botanist fought a three-year war against 4,000 Japanese troops

By Annabel Venning

Last updated at 11:12 AM on 30th October 2009

The headlights of a Morris saloon car cut through the dense blackness of the tropical night.

Driving after dark was forbidden in Japanese-occupied Malaya, and the men in the car knew that if they were caught they would face torture and beheading.

Six of the group were Chinese guerillas. But one of them was Captain Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British special forces officer stranded behind enemy lines but determined to keep fighting

Jungle soldier: Freddy Spencer Chapman pictured in Tibet in 1936

It was July 1942. Five months earlier, in what Winston Churchill termed the worst disaster in British history, the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese army.

Aside from Chapman, among the few British troops now left on the Malayan peninsula were the thousands of prisoners-of-war incarcerated in camps, often in horrific conditions.

If caught, Chapman knew he would be treated not as a prisoner-of-war but a spy and duly executed. Several of his ex-comrades had already been captured and beheaded.

Suddenly, out of the night came headlights. A Japanese army truck loomed towards them.

'Japun, Japun,' shouted the Chinese guerillas in panic. The Morris swerved violently and came to a halt in front of the truck.

Chapman could see they were hopelessly outnumbered: the truck contained at least 40 Japanese.

Celebrated: Freddy Spencer Chapman entered the war as a much decorated lieutenant with the Seaforth Highlanders.

But as the six Chinese dashed frantically for the cover of the roadside trees, Chapman seized his chance.

Crouching behind the Morris, he lobbed a couple of grenades into the truck before he, too, dashed towards the jungle.

His courage cost him dearly. A bullet passed through his left arm and another caught him on the side of his face. As he stumbled through the darkness, a mortar bomb exploded beside him, throwing him against a rubber tree.

With the Japanese strafing the ground with mortar and machine-gun fire, it was clear he had to keep moving.

Together with one of the Chinese guerillas, he ran through the trees as, for three hours, the Japanese raked the jungle with bullets.

The jungle camp that had been their intended destination was at least 14 miles away and Chapman and the guerilla had no water or food, no compass or a map, and only the stars to guide them.

Chapman had lost a lot of blood. Even before his new injuries, his left leg was weak from an old bullet wound, and he was frequently racked with painful bouts of dysentery.

But hour after hour he drove himself onwards, through thorn thickets and paddy swamps, down sheer ravines, up steep hillsides.

Keeping going was, he wrote afterwards, a matter of willpower: 'The capabilities of the human body are almost unlimited.'

Fortunately, willpower was a quality that Freddy Spencer Chapman possessed in abundance.

After marching all night, and much of the following day, he and his companion made it back to their temporary camp.

And it was there, in the ensuing days, that he was told of the damage he had caused to the enemy.

'It was with great satisfaction I learned my grenades had accounted for eight of them and wounded many more'.

It was not the first blow Chapman had struck against the Japanese.

In a new biography, historian Brian Moynahan recounts how the young officer successfully led a tiny resistance war that wrought such havoc on Japanese supply lines that local commanders were convinced they were looking for a 200-strong force of Australian guerillas and dispatched a force of 4,000 to catch them.

Chapman single-handedly wreaked so much havoc on Japanese supply lines they thought he was a 200-strong force.

Yet Chapman's exploits have largely gone overlooked in the history books, forgotten amid the many tales of heroism from the conflict in Europe.

That is a terrible injustice. For his story of endurance in the fetid heat of the Malayan jungle is surely one of the most awe-inspiring of the whole war.

So how did this unlikely hero end up trapped behind enemy lines?

Chapman's survival skills had been honed during a tough boyhood. Orphaned young, he grew to be solitary, self-reliant and resourceful.

He exulted in pushing himself to extremes, once encouraging his fellow pupils to hit him over the head with a cricket bat 'to see how hard he could take it.'

After Cambridge University he became an explorer, learning to thrive on danger, discomfort and exhaustion.

He joined the army at the outbreak of war, soon transferring to special forces. In September 1941, as tensions in the Far East mounted, Chapman was posted to Singapore as the second in command of a Special Training School, to prepare expats for resistance against the Japanese, should they invade.

But he found the colonial authorities dismissive. Neither Singapore, the so-called 'Impregnable Fortress', nor Malaya, protected by its thick jungle barrier, would ever fall to the 'little yellow men', they insisted.

Chapman was refused permission to train either British civilians or local Chinese communists who settled in the region and hated the Japanese since their homeland had been invaded in 1937.

It was not until Japanese troops landed in Malaya and bombed Singapore on December 8, 1941, that Chapman was finally taken seriously.

He only had time to give a crash course in guerilla tactics to a handful of volunteers before the Japanese forces were on his doorstep and he was forced to flee.

Chapman trekked for days until he was deep behind enemy lines.

Despite his training, he had little experience of the jungle environment, with its green cathedral of trees that almost blocked out the sunlight, thorns and leeches that tore into the flesh, and the searing heat that left them drenched in sweat by day, only to shiver with cold at night.

Wading through swamps, hacking his way through dense vegetation, struggling to navigate when he could barely see the sun, let alone any landmarks, he became weak as his food supplies dwindled to nothing.

His original intention had been to rendezvous with another pocket of British resistance fighters.

But when he arrived at the prearranged point, he discovered that he had been left behind - assumed lost or dead.

Undeterred, Chapman unleashed his guerilla campaign.

In the 'mad fortnight' that followed, as Chapman later referred to it, he crept through the jungle night after night to lay charges on railway bridges and roads, derailing troop and supply trains, and blowing convoys of trucks high into the air before raking them with bullets and grenades.

Chapman estimated that, together with the help of two other British officers, he derailed eight trains, damaged 15 bridges, cut the railway track in 60 places, destroyed 40 trucks or cars and accounted for between 500 and 1,500 casualties.

It was, as Earl Mountbatten would later describe it: 'more than a whole division of the British Army could have achieved'.

The risks were immense. When any of the locals who assisted him were caught, their whole village would be burnt to the ground - the inhabitants incinerated inside their houses, or shot and bayoneted to death, men, women and children.

Chastened by such endurance, despite suffering many of the jungle's ills - pneumonia, infected leech bites and blackwater fever, a variant of malaria that caused him 'frightful vomiting and dysentery, accompanied by such agonising pains across my pelvis that it seemed as if all my bones must come apart'.

When the fever was at its height, his fits were so bad that two men had to hold him down.

On another, he was gripped by a bout of malarial fever so acute that the guerillas had to gag him lest his chattering teeth give their position away to a Japanese search party nearby.

Heralded: Chapman's warfare skills earned him praise from Earl Mountbatten

Yet each time, Chapman recovered. The jungle, he later said, was neutral: 'It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive.'

To occupy himself, Chapman studied botany - pressing flowers, identifying bird species and writing copious notes.

'I had always made a point of doing this in any country I ever visited for any length of time,' he wrote, 'and I saw no reason why the presence of the Japs should prevent me now.'

He also kept a diary, writing in Eskimo - which he had learned on an expedition to Greenland in his youth - lest it should fall into Japanese hands.

Often, he became restless and took himself off on hunting expeditions into the jungle, learning to move silently on bare feet, to catch deer with his bare hands.

He travelled to other guerilla camps and en route he lived variously with Chinese bandits, Malay tribespeople and communists.

On one such visit he was served a special banquet, with an unfamiliar meat. It was only later he learned the hideous truth.

'I was told I had been eating Jap,' he wrote. 'Though I would not knowingly have become a cannibal, I was quite interested to have sampled human flesh.'

On another occasion he fell in with some communists whose leader was, he suspected, about to betray him to the Japanese. So one night he slipped away into the jungle - unarmed, with little food and no navigational tools.

Hacking his way through the jungle tested even Chapman's immense physical and mental strength.

The heat seemed to rise up from the ground, torturing him with thirst, his heavy rucksack rubbed the skin off his shoulders, midges bit him till his eyes were swollen almost shut.

Interests: Chapman studied botany in his spare time.

Weak and disoriented, misfortune finally caught up with him: he stumbled on a Japanese patrol and was captured.

For any other man, this would have spelled the end.

But with guile and charm, Chapman persuaded the Japanese officer not to tie him up and in the dead of night he was able to wriggle out under the tent flap and escape into the jungle once more.

For six days he marched on his ulcerated, weakened legs, light-headed with fever and hunger, barely stopping to sleep.

The steep ravines and mountains tested him to the limit, as Japanese planes circled overhead searching for the British prey who had so humiliated them.

It was only when Chapman realised, to his horror, that he had been walking in a huge circle that he finally despaired.

He lay, sweating and feverish, in a jungle shelter, singing old love songs and remembering former girlfriends.

'It was an unpleasant sensation to lie there alone in the depths of the jungle, convinced that I had only a few hours to live.' He was just 36.

But the story does not end there. For miraculously, little by little, Chapman once again recovered his strength and eventually made it back to his old friends in the guerilla camp.

And in December 1943, he was overjoyed to be joined by two special forces officers, John Davis and Richard Broome, who had been landed in Malaya by submarine to coordinate guerilla activity for a planned Allied invasion.

For over a year they worked as a three-man unit, training Chinese guerillas, making contact with other resistance groups and trying desperately to procure a working radio.

At last, in February 1945, they obtained one and made contact with the British forces in Ceylon, who were at first reluctant to believe that any of them, but particularly Chapman, could possibly be alive after so long in the jungle.

A rescue plan was soon launched to bring the jungle heroes home and in May 1945, after a hazardous journey to the coast, they were picked up by submarine and taken back to Ceylon.

Chapman's heroic tale of survival was over and three months later Japan finally surrendered.

In recognition of his extraordinary achievements and endurance he was given a DSO and bar, although not the Victoria Cross that many, including Mountbatten, thought he deserved.

Yet for years after the war, Chapman felt a keen sense of despair. Having sealed off his emotions in the jungle, in peace-time he found himself tormented by memories of 'companions shot down beside me . . . the screams of defenceless Chinese women and children bayoneted to death by the Japanese'.

He married and had three sons, and a successful career as a headmaster.

But aged 64, weakened by the illnesses he had picked up in the jungle and suffering from depression, he shot himself in his study.

'I don't want you to have to nurse an invalid for the rest of my life,' he wrote in a note to his wife.

It was a last sacrifice of a courageous and utterly English hero, a man who gave every ounce of his mental and physical strength to the cause he believed in, whose extraordinary bravery and tenacity were an inspiration to all who observed him.

Perhaps only now, with the publication of this biography, will Freddy Spencer Chapman win the recognition his memory deserves.

As one SOE officer and historian said of him, his survival in such circumstances and against such overwhelming odds represents: 'Evidence of what the human body can be prevailed upon by the human spirit to endure.'

• JUNGLE SOLDIER: The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman, by Brian Moynahan, is published by Quercus, priced £18.99.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a must-read to me.
Especially to keep in remembrance a fallen brother-in-arms.

B Woodman
SSG (Ret) US Army

Anonymous said...

This Was A MAN.

How could once-great britain have gone from this Man to what they now are in just a couple of generations?

God help us - and God Save Our Republic!


Sean said...

There, was a MAN.

EbalNolom said...

I have a copy of Spencer's "The Jungle Is Neutral" which documents his guerilla fighting against the JIA in Malaysia. Good book and well worth a read.

Stephen said...

Wow! That was incredible.

I appreciated the recommendation of Rifleman Dodd earlier in this post. Would you consider posting a Sipsey Haunt Reading list?

Boat Guy said...

Also to be commended is Forrester's "Brown on Resolution"

Anonymous said...

When a man knows that a task is possible, the only requirement left is to apply the correct amount of effort. Think of the four minute mile, climbing Mt.Everest, The American Revolution, and Chapman's perseverance. No one thought those tasks would have been possible - that is... until someone actually did them.

Let us take what we can from Chapman. We may be in his shoes sooner than we think.


PS- Note to students of history: A brush up on "The Gray Ghost" couldn't hurt either.

Happy D said...

Don't count Britain dead yet! After all it did produce Philip A. Luty Author of Expedient Homemade Firearms.

Anonymous said...

I served in Malaysia Borneo and the peninsular I still live here and I know the jungle
God bless him