An Idyll Too Far - Chapter 15

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Chapter Fifteen - In Durance Vile

Just before midnight on Sunday, 28 June, 1942, Wicker, in the sergeants' tent, was awakened by the sound of several planes passing over. He awakened Chalky and they went outside together; however, it was a dark night, with heavy cloud cover for a change, and there was nothing to be seen in the sky. All they could hear was the sound of aeroplane engines receding in the distance out to the west. As they listened, the aircraft seemed to be turning and soon passed them by to the north, travelling eastwards.

'I don't bloody well like it one little bit,' exclaimed Chalky. 'They can't have been on a recce in the pitch-dark, and we'd have heard it if they'd dropped any bombs. So what the hell can they have been up to?'

His mate thought for a moment and, not suspecting the truth, expressed the idea that they could have been Yankee planes passing over on their way back from some raid or other. Although he did not believe that, he could think of no other explanation. They went back to bed.

With the exception of the two guard commanders and six sentries that were always on duty, all the British in the camp slept, and while they dreamed their varied dreams, several hundred parachutists were drifting to earth five miles away across the desert. Fifty of them moved off immediately in the direction of the docks, but the remainder of these men were in no hurry. Another smaller party had landed at the foot of the mountain at the same time as the main group landed on the desert and these had immediately begun their climb to the summit. After the main detachment had gathered together, they re-folded their parachutes for something to do to while away the time as they waited for four o'clock. Most of the men were sleeping on the soft sand when the call came for them to start marching.

The leaders of these troops needed no compass to direct them, as the warm glow of the outside cookhouse fires heating up the water for the regiment's gunfire could be seen in the north. Having been supplied with photographs of the camp's layout, they halted a hundred yards away from the first sentry box and then proceeded to take up positions round the perimeter, with their rifles and light machine guns trained through the barbed wire over the tents.

At the same time, eight specialists moved forward by the light of the now-brightening sky, the six knife-throwers to crawl on their bellies and bring each of the sentries to within range of their throwing knives. The last two, swordsmen armed with traditional two-handed Japanese swords, crept forward as close as they dared, ready to stand by the entrances of each of the guard commanders' tents, to act when necessary after the six had done their work.

One by one they all reached their destinations and glued their eyes to the sky above them. Dead on half-past-five, a single, silent green Verey light soared into the still dark heavens. Simultaneously, six heavy blades thrown from about twelve feet away penetrated the chests of the six sentries, and the Japanese who had thrown them jumped to their feet and rushed across the few feet that separated them from their victims, second razor-sharp knife in hand, to cut their throats and stifle the groaning.

The two swordsmen ran forward to stand by each of the guard tent flaps, blades held high with two hands. Each of the two guard commanders, the only men whose duty kept them awake in the guard tents, heard the faint sounds and put their heads out of their tent openings. A split second later, one after the other, both heads rolled onto the ground, their bodies caught (with the killers carefully avoiding the spurting blood) and soundlessly lowered to the ground. Experience of this kind of operation had been acquired after five years of fighting in China, where no quarter was given by either side.

Minutes later, two white Verey lights suddenly rose high into the sky to burst almost simultaneously over the camp. At the sight of these, machine guns blasted forth on the mountain-top, the Naval docks and all round the main camp perimeter. This few seconds' burst was followed by screams; the main body of Japanese troops had been told to fire over the tents, but whether by design or misled by the darkness, many of them had fired rounds that had penetrated the canvas and bodies inside. As the uninjured pulled themselves together after the initial shock, they began to apply field dressings to the wounds of their injured comrades. Suddenly the confusing sound of an amplified Japanese voice was heard over the camp.

'Islando now belong Imperoo Nippon Emperor. You are surroundo by Nippon sorja. Oru meno leave tento now and putupo hando, no guno. Oru meno go parado groundo, no guno. Meno witchi guno Nippon sorja shooto. Speedo speedo speedo!' The men were soon to get used to these last words, as they accompanied most orders and had been learned even by those Japanese who spoke no other English.

As the men left their tents, the Japanese poured into the camp through the two gates. In the signals tent, duty NCO Lance Corporal Drake had been frantically tapping away trying to raise Command HQ: 'di-di-dida-di, di-di-dida-di....' After the half minute or so in which he had been vainly sending with no response, the burst of fire from a Japanese solider who, attracted by the tall aerial, appeared in the doorway with his LMG, rendered Mrs Drake a widow and her two little ones fatherless. At the same time as this had been taking place, the gunners on the mountain-top had been shot without having been given a chance to raise their hands, as were those on sentry-go at the docks.

It was rapidly becoming full daylight as the men were lined up on the parade ground; their captors counted them over and over again for the next hour, until they were eventually satisfied that the count was correct. Then the Japanese captain, girded with a samurai sword that was so long that it seemed a miracle the short man could avoid tripping over it, climbed onto a rostrum taken from the padre's marquee. The prisoners later learned he was Hamashi Hajimoto, who would be arrested at the close of the war and tried for war crimes. He was to be found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment. Now, however, he was lord of all he surveyed, and addressed the prisoners.

'You, oru men, Nippon prisona. Nippon sorja oru very kindo. Oru prisona treato and meshivery goodo if obey orda an' work'ardo. Oru prisona must bow, so, when see Nippon sorja.' He snarled something to one of his men, who bowed to him in a demonstration of how this should be accomplished. Then he screamed, 'Oru sorja bow!' Most of those in the front row emulated the Japanese soldier's effort, but the order stuck in Sergeant Chalky White's craw, and his bow was scarcely detectable with the naked eye. There was a roar of 'Courra!' from a nearby Jap, as he jabbed his rifle butt into Chalky's midrif. He collapsed onto the ground, gasping for breath, but was repeatedly kicked by his attacker, until he managed to scramble to his feet again, among shouts of 'Bagero! Engerisu Gunzo nogoodena!' The officer concluded with the following peroration. 'Engerisu sorja dammi dammi, mucho punishu.' This time glaring at the men and with one hand clutching the long handle of his sword, he repeated, 'Oru sorja bow!'

All soldiers bowed.

Our men were to discover that in the Japanese army, a captain had the responsibility of a colonel or even higher, and so on down the ranks, with a sergeant doing the work of one of our captains. Junior NCOs were replaced by two and three-star privates, a star being awarded for each of the first three years' unblemished service; small yellow stars on a red oblong tab were pinned on the left breast. Ordinary soldiers could punish their juniors on the spot with anything from a slapped face to kicked shins. British prisoners therefore stood little chance of kid-glove treatment, a lesson they had to learn very quickly.

While this had been taking place, the remaining Japanese had been carrying out a search of the whole camp, confiscating knives and anything else likely to be used as a weapon, radios, razors, sweets and anything that took the individual's fancy. Then they swarmed round the prisoners; each one had to be stripped naked and his clothing searched. That, the Britishers thought, was the final indignity.

All their officers were now taken away from the other ranks and counted separately, before being told to await orders in the further warehouse. The other ranks remained standing in file out there in the sun. One private soldier muttered to his neighbour, 'What do you think the Japs...' There was a roar from a guard standing nearby, who ran over and thrust his rifle butt into the man's abdomen.

'Courra! "Jap" dameda! Engerisu sorja speak "Nippon."!' Another of the many taboos learned that were to be inflicted on the new prisoners of war.

Private Taffy Thomas, smallest man in the RAFR, happened to be the left-hand end man in the front rank. His first self-imposed duty when they arrived on Ambouna three months or so earlier had been to form a choir of twenty men. Now, standing stiffly to attention, he began to sing in his fine tenor voice, 'Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide...'

The Japanese private standing nearest him, who was about twenty feet away, had stood there open-mouthed in astonishment at the sound; now, recovering from his surprise, he threw his rifle down on the ground and, rushing forward, smacked Taffy across the face with all his strength. Both men were of about the same size, but the only effect of the blow was to cause Taffy to put his hands together as in prayer and, looking heavenward, to continue. 'When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.'

While Taffy continued, the Japanese soldier kicked his shins furiously; but at the same time, other prisoners' voices were beginning to join in. Fortunately, the Japanese were all wearing their strange rubber shoes: what we would now call trainers, but with a separate compartment for the big toe. In kicking with them, they probably hurt the foot as much as the shin.

'Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day,
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see:
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.'

By this time, the whole parade was singing; those few who did not know the words hummed or la-la'd. Furious, the Jap rushed back to where his rifle with its fixed bayonet lay, snatched it up and charged. While Taffy sang on without hesitation, hands still clasped in prayer, others stopped singing, as they drew their breath in horror. When the blade neared his belly, there was a roar of 'Dameda!' that seemed to emanate from several Japanese throats at once, and the aggressive one stopped in his tracks. The men were allowed to finish singing their hymn, many of them now with tears running down their cheeks as they recovered from the shock.

'I need thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?

Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;

Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes;

Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;

Heaven's morning breaks, and Earth's vain shadows flee;

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!'

It is only in times of mortal danger that most of us strive for help from higher planes.

Mercifully, there was a British officer who spoke a little Japanese among the prisoners and he also knew something of their ways. After bowing, he approached the soldier who appeared to be in charge to ask permission for the men to carry their wounded into the hospital, which had fortunately not been hit by any bullets. He was told that twenty men could be detailed to bring out both wounded and the dead and lay them on the ground in front of their tents. A Japanese doctor would come along to inspect every man and instruct what should be done in each case. The British doctor could accompany him and record all decisions. Since there were almost two hundred tents, which yielded one hundred and ninety-four wounded and fifty-eight dead, the sun was to be high in the sky before the charade finished.

As the Japanese 'doctor', who was in fact no more than a medical orderly, moved along the rows of tents, he barked uncompromising instructions. Those with wounds to arms and shoulders or flesh wounds to legs and buttocks, as long as they had no broken bones protruding through the skin, were told to parade with the uninjured and a note was only made of the addition to their numbers. Severely injured men could be carried to the hospital on stretchers and would be examined daily to ensure they returned to duty when fit. As no note was being made by the Japs of the names of men being classified as fit to go with the uninjured, the British MO followed behind and swapped some of those selected for those he considered less in need of hospitalisation and listed their names for the stretcher bearers.

Thus was to begin the worst two years of their lives for all the British prisoners of war on Ambouna. The officers, having been separated from the men, were kept isolated from them. Failure to understand and act promptly on Japanese orders, spoken in their version of the English language if they were lucky or otherwise barked in staccato Japanese, brought swift retaliation with a rifle butt or worse.

At first, the world knew nothing of the island's capture, and therefore the monthly supply ship, a merchantman flying the 'Red Duster', which docked early the next morning, was met by machine-gun fire over the bridge. The radio operator, looking out of his window next to the bridge and seeing the fried egg flag flying over the docks, just had time to repeat an emergency broadcast in the clear, three times:

'Mayday! Mayday! SS Norfolk Castle in Ambounadi dock reporting island now occupied by Japanese, we under fire; repeat, Mayday! Mayday!...' A bullet crashing through his window convinced him that discretion being the better part of valour, it was wiser to come out on deck with his hands held high.

The merchant crew were all taken prisoner; the ship, which was due to call at Bombay next, was fully laden with food and clothing, not to mention mail for the troops. The Japanese made their sailor prisoners burn the troops' letters and unload part of the cargo. A plane later landed a skeleton crew, which sailed the ship away to offload the remainder at their main depot in Java. The 'mayday' message was picked up by a British destroyer off the Yemeni coast and the captain had it relayed immediately to the Admiralty. They in turn notified the entire far-Eastern Fleet and then passed the message on to the War Office. As it was still only five o'clock in the morning in London, another two hours were to elapse before representatives of the three services, accompanied by their civil officers, could be brought together. After a period of recriminations between the naval and airforce chiefs, they eventually got around to discussing what was to be done.

It was the Admiral, who had claimed that the Navy's command of the Ambouna sector of the ocean would prevent this from happening, who now spoke.

'Let us assume that the island has indeed fallen to the enemy, although we have no real proof of this yet...' He was interrupted here by the general, who told him that they had been trying to get into radio touch with their station on the island for over two hours now, without receiving any reply or acknowledgement. An officer from the Admiralty confirmed that there was no reply coming from SS Norfolk Castle either, which was indeed due to call at Ambouna docks at the time of the 'mayday' call; neither was anything being received from the post on the docks. Reluctantly, the admiral agreed to accept its capture as a fact, before continuing. 'Well, it is one thing to take it, quite another to hold on to it. Within a month I can lay on a battleship five miles off the coast and blow the bloody place out of the water with fourteen-inch shells....'

He was interrupted by the Air Chief. 'There'll be no need to give 'em a month to get dug in. I can have a squadron of Wellingtons flatten Ambouna and its docks within a week.'

It was now the airman's turn to be interrupted — this time by the General, who exploded. 'There are probably well over a thousand British servicemen on that island now, although we don't know how many of them have been killed. I suppose and hope there will have been plenty of survivors, and there'll also be the civilian crew of that merchantman. Do those British prisoners count for nothing? Information has already been reaching us from Siam that your bloody aeroplanes are bombing and machine-gunning indiscriminately and killing our prisoners working on the railway by the hundred. So what do you think their families here are going to think — and even more important, to say — when they are told we didn't bother to wait for the Japs to kill them on Ambouna, but blew them to bits ourselves with bombs or shells? We aren't like the Japs, with no concern for life. So I say, no way! As I see it, there's nothing to be gained by attacking the island either by sea or land at this moment, in any case. Now that we know the Japs are there, we must have daily air reconnaissance of the surrounding ocean, and make sure they are so well blockaded that nothing lands or takes off from Ambouna until we are ready to retake the place.'

'That's all very well in theory,' the Air Chief Marshal observed. 'It's one thing to send a one-off squadron of Wellington bombers to flatten the place, but quite another to establish a daily routine, when our Africa campaign (where Claude Auchinleck will be taking over, as you will all of course know), has the top priority on air power, because so much is at stake there. You see, just one plane can't survey an area of sea a couple of hundred miles in diameter. It would probably take a squadron, and even then some would probably be able to break through under cover of darkness. So, I'm afraid we just don't have the aircraft to do what you ask, and I very much doubt whether the Navy has the ships, either.'

It was a summary of these arguments that formed the message that Churchill found on his desk later that day; he pored over it for an hour before deciding there was nothing he could say on the wireless that would help matters, so he turned his attention once more to the matter in hand, which was how to avoid the Eighth Army being driven out of Mersa Matruh, where Rommel was in the process of rounding up six thousand Allied prisoners.

Churchill's deliberations were to get them nowhere; Tobruk had fallen to Rommel on 21 June, 1942; then Mersa Matruh was to fall on 27 June, with a total loss of over 30,000 Allied casualties and prisoners. To rub in the salt at this time, Laval, the quisling Vichy France leader, had broadcast to his people on 22 June the following message: 'I wish victory for Germany!' That was followed by the Germans launching their offensive south of Moscow on the 29th, to take Vorishilovgrad within the month; difficulties were by then looking pretty well insuperable for the United Kingdom; at least, so thought all but the most tenacious of those in a position to know all the facts.

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