As I am sure many of you also did, I watched the quite excellent –VJ Day 75, The Nation’s Tribute’ broadcast on BBC Television on Saturday evening and may I here commend the BBC, the many individual artistes and also, members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces involved for what was without doubt, a very fitting commemoration marking not only the 75th anniversary of the end of the war with Japan but also, the end of Second World War.
The contribution from members of all three armed forces and spoken word aside, the VJ-75 commemoration was made all the more special by the photo-montage of words given by surviving veterans that had fought with such gallantry in Singapore, Hong Kong and in particular Burma, many of whom were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese and made to work in unimaginable conditions building the so called ‘Death Railway’ across what was then Burma and Siam.
The so called ‘Forgotten Army’ or to give it its correct name, ‘The Fourteenth Army’ led so ably by Field Marshal the Viscount Slim whose statue stands so proudly aside that of Field Marshal the Viscount Alan Brooke and Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery in Whitehall is forgotten no more.
In a pre-recorded speech broadcast early in the event the Duke of Cambridge spoke of how King George VI had addressed the nation on August 15 1945 referring to war with Japan as:
“The most catastrophic conflict in mankind’s history had come to an end. It is hard for us to imagine” he said “what Victory over Japan Day must have felt like at the time; a mix of happiness, jubilation, and sheer relief, together with a deep sadness and overwhelming sense of loss for those who would never return home”.
“Today we remember those who endured terrible suffering and honour all those who lost their lives” but he cautioned: “As we look back, we must not forget our responsibility to learn the lessons of the past and ensure that the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated. We owe that to our veterans, to their families, and to the generations who will come after us.
He went on to thank those veterans, among them his own grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, who he said “remembers vividly his role [as a young Royal Officer aboard a warship in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered} collecting released prisoners of war”.
As we commemorate the dreadful impact of war and particularly of those who suffered so dreadfully at the hands of what for those who were there was a ruthless and unforgiving enemy we use words of others to ensure that we never forget those that gave their lives in the service of their country and that played such a vital part ensuring that those that followed could be free. Seventy-five years since the tyrannical acts of Germany and Japan ended in victory for the allies is but a very short time in the history of mankind.
We will always remember them no matter where and when they fell and we must never allow the generations that follow us to forget what occurred in either of the two World-Wars and it is the duty of all of us to pass this down to our children and for them to their children with the now immortal words attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds and as in this case inscribed on the Kohima memorial to the Burma campaign:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow we gave our today”
In what I consider to have been a very fine piece and absolutely appropriate commentary published in the Sunday Telegraph today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith wrote:
“As the nation tuned to the BBC to hear the unfamiliar voice of the new Labour prime minister Clem Attlee declare that “the last of our enemies is laid low” they came out onto the streets in carnival fashion bringing the curtain down on a global conflict that had lasted nearly six years.
Having started in Europe, it ended in the Far East 75 years ago yesterday on VJ Day, August 15th 1945. The final victory over Imperial Japan ended the longest campaign fought by the British in the Second World War, which started in December 1941 with a series of humiliating defeats and culminated in the blinding dawn of the atomic age with apocalyptic triumph in August 1945.
And so, it seems curious that the war in the Far east seemed to go so unheralded at the time and that our principal instrument of victory, the Fourteenth Army, a remarkable collection of British, Indian, Gurkha, African and Burmese should have felt so marginal that it called itself the Forgotten Army.
It was, after all, only in Burma and the Philippines that large-scale land campaigns took place to defeat the major Japanese armies.
The Burma campaign was fought ostensibly for two reasons: to keep the road open to China and keep her in the fight against Japan, tying up Japanese divisions in the meantime that might have been used elsewhere against the Allies and to reconquer a province of British imperial assets around the periphery which had been left woefully unprotected at the outbreak of war.
But to many Britons the war in the Far East seemed a secondary and very distant campaign fought across a vast geographic canvas, most of it seemingly ocean. It was the furthest theatre from home, about which very little seemed commonplace and which was distinctly remote from everyday experiences at home, fighting a nation much more difficult to understand and identify against than Nazi Germany.
Furthermore, Burma was a country like no other: combining jungle, mountain, desert dry-plain, rivers, ocean, melting sun and drenching monsoon. It was a war of logistics, medicine, environment and culture as much as it was a war of manoeuvre.
And it was a war of extremes; of climate, isolation, deprivation and occasional cruelty during which a British and Japanese army fought not once but twice across the length and breadth of Burma before the Fourteenth Army finally delivered the greatest single defeat suffered by a Japanese land force during the war.
A miraculous triumph of arms and allies but bought at very considerable human cost of more than 71,000 dead including some 12,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners who died in captivity.
Perhaps it was partly this contemporary sense of under appreciation and going unnoticed that gave rise to the exceptionally rich vein of post-war literature that the campaign threw up; from the victorious generals, especially Bill Slim’s Defeat into Victory, surely a title to conjure with today, to the tactical commanders, Fergusson, Calvert, Masters spring to mind, also the soldiers’ stories, including my favourite wartime memoir of all, ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ by George MacDonald Fraser, in which he recounts in primary colours his teenage experience as an infantryman in Burma.
But today, those remarkable and diverse veterans of Slim’s Forgotten Army, a tiny and dwindling band scattered across the former Empire, need not feel neglected. This is the moment for us all to reflect on the extraordinary sacrifices made by those men and women and celebrate their inspiring achievements. And although it is now 76 years since the victories at Imphal and Kohima set the Fourteenth Army on the road to final victory, the memorial on that battlefield contains a haunting epitaph that resonates today, exhorting: “When you go home, tell them of us, and say; for your tomorrow we gave our today”
So, as the experience of the war passes into history and the living witnesses of the Burma road fade away, modern eyes are left with the images of steaming jungle, swollen rivers, glutinous mud, monsoon and mosquitos, amid which human endeavour. Ingenuity, tenacity and spirit triumphed.
Surely a soldier’s tale cut in stone to lift all hearts”
(General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith KCB CBE ADC Gen – Chief of the General Staff)
No further comment is necessary from me save to remind of the importance of history and ensuring that we and those future generations that follow us do all in our and their power to prevent the atrocities of war on the scale witnessed by veterans of the Burma campaign ever occurring again.
CHW (London – 16th June 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785