This year is the 78th anniversary of the ending of World War II, with commemorations known as VE Day and VJ Day. War in Europe officially ended on 8 May 1945, but it wasn’t until over three months later, on 15 August 1945, that the Emperor of Japan formally announced surrender to the Allies after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan earlier in August.
My father was caught up in this war as he was serving in the army in the Far East (as the British called the region then). He was in the Royal Signals, stationed in Hong Kong since 1938. He was captured by the Japanese in 1941 at the end of the bloody three-week battle for Hong Kong. He spent the rest of the war in Japanese PoW camps firstly in Hong Kong and then in Japan.
A few years ago I wrote a book about his experiences, along with another seven British servicemen, held in Japanese PoW camps, entitled These Valiant Men. The eight biographies of ordinary servicemen in their 20s and 30s, some just 22 years old, tell of how they came to be in the Far East, their experiences as POWs and what happened to them personally immediately after the war. Grim but in the true spirit of British servicemen throughout the ages, in their dogged determination not to be beaten when confronted with desperate circumstances, they managed to have lighter moments. Good on them!
My father survived, along with the other servicemen in the book, and I am honoured to record their experiences and in my own small way commit their war time stories to print as an epitaph to all those who lost their lives in a war hoping to bring about world peace. The United Nations was created in 1945 but sadly, world peace has not come to pass, as the many current conflicts show whether it be in the Ukraine, in Syria or across Africa in places such as Sudan and Mali.
Like the present invasion of Ukraine, the war in the Far East had been brewing for some time after Manchuria was invaded by the Japanese in 1931. Thank goodness the protagonists didn’t have nuclear weapons then.
The British largely ignored the Manchurian conflict but the writing was on the wall. Britain had only two military outposts in the Far East: Singapore and Hong Kong. My understanding was that the Governor of Hong Kong was still taking tea on the terrace of Government House right up until the Japanese attacked Hong Kong from the North through mainland China on 8th of December 1941. The previous day Pearl Harbor was attacked in Hawaii. After Hong Kong, Singapore fell on 8 February 1942.
Heavy loss of lives and land
That was it! A true low point of the war. Japan controlled the whole of south east Asia and was even bombing Darwin in Australia. The Dutch government had already handed over the Dutch East Indies (now largely Indonesia). At its peak, the war in the Far East engulfed thousands of miles of the Pacific, thousands of islands of the Philippines, Borneo, New Guinea, French Indochina (Vietnam etc) , the Dutch East Indies, Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma (now Myanmar).
It is estimated that well over 300,000 British Empire and Commonwealth military personnel were captured in WWII in the Far East. Many died in the conflict in the lead up to their capture and in captivity. In all, millions died in the conflict including many civilians.
From their HQ in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the British were particularly concerned with preventing Japanese forces reaching India. The Japanese army had begun to build the infamous ‘Burma Railway’. The hardship of the POWs used as slaves to build the railway was captured in the 1957 film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, however I recommend reading the award winning book ‘The Railway Man’ written by one of the British POWs who survived the experience. It depicts the cruelty and hardship endured by thousands of Commonwealth servicemen, including those from Australia in South East Asia.
15 August 1945 Japanese surrender and end of war
In South East Asia the British fight back was led by Major-General Orde Wingate who commanded the special forces fighting behind enemy lines known as the Chindits. Their guerrilla action was key in slowing the Japanese advance towards India. In the Pacific the US advance was moving apace by 1944 and by early 1945 Japan itself came within US air force bomber range as my father testified from sighting of the B29 aeroplanes from his POW camp in the south of Japan at Innoshima.
The tide of war had turned but it wasn’t until August 1945 that Emperor Hirohito announced surrender after the dropping of the two atomic bombs.
The threat of nuclear war has been with us ever since…
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