Urquhart takes the story from his early times in Aberdeen with a very close knit family life, in some ways closeting him from the ways of the world, to being conscripted into the Gordon Highlanders as a very naïve young man at the outbreak of war and the events that followed. Unsurprisingly, Urquhart’s bitterness to his captors comes out in the book and that is to be expected. What also comes out at the end of the book is the shabby way in which Britain ‘welcomed’ back its soldiers following the armistice. The book has many harrowing tales to tell, but is well written and easy reading, with as close a timeline as could be expected in these confusing times.
The book starts by covering his early family and work life, where he gives a very good view of 1930’s way of life and working. Urquhart discovers dance halls and his lifelong love of ballroom dancing is born. At one dance he meets Hazel, who is to be so important to him and helping him deal with the times in POW camps. The book then moves on to his conscription almost as soon as war is declared. 23 September 1939 he receives his call up notice and off he goes to join the Gordon Highlanders, his local infantry Regiment. Here there is a great contrast on how soldiers are trained today. He was called up on 23 September 1939 with only experience as a Boy Scout behind him and on 22 December 1939 he is stepping off the troopship in Singapore to join his battalion! 3 months from civilian to member of a frontline infantry battalion. His first parade under the RSM is well remembered, but none too fondly. As you can imagine there were a few changes in the way of life for a young man who 3 months earlier was a civilian.
Perhaps this is the reason for his remaining so isolated in the way he went about surviving. Throughout the book Urquhart’s individuality is apparent; very few names of other members of the Regiment are mentioned. In the camps he worked very much on his own, a bit scared to become friends with anyone, preferring to live on his own wits to survive. This is perhaps one of the most striking things to come out of this book.
Urquhart soon becomes a competent soldier, but again the feeling that he did not really fit in comes out from his words. Life carries on almost as a peacetime infantry battalion; range work, jungle training and various jobs around the place. Nothing out of the ordinary. The social life is very much of the colonial era with officers and ORs well separated. However, he soon finds the local dance halls and ‘taxi’ girls to dance with. In fact he ends up running a “dancing class” for some of these girls! Some time after joining the battalion in Singapore he is shunted off to an admin job at Garrison HQ which gets him his promotion to Corporal. Here he works until the Japanese attack and the eventual surrender.
One of the tasks he is given is to look after and mentor 3 boy soldiers from the Gordons. As can be imagined three 15 year old boys could be a handful. One in particular, Freddy, becomes close and is one of the few characters that Urquhart mentions and brings in to his story.
This is where the book moves into its darker period. I won’t spoil this very good book for you but Urquhart’s description of the camps, the guards, the treatment handed out are very well dealt with. He obviously keeps these events very close to him after all these years. Again, throughout his time in the camps he is a loner, looking after himself. No complaints about that from this Reviewer, it obviously worked well for Urquhart, and I for one could not imagine what these men had to deal with and survive. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and the others who had to deal with this.
After some months spent in Changi POW camp he was taken by the Japanese to go to a ‘holiday camp’ where everything would be supplied, food, clothing etc. They were very quickly disabused of this idea – the Japanese herded them onto cargo railway trucks and jammed in as many as possible with no possibility of people lying or sitting down. This went on for days until they reached a place in the jungle which they were made to clear and build their own camp, the basest of structures. From that he and the others who had survived the journey started to build the Burma railway, moving on to work on building the real bridge over the River Kwai. Urquhart describes the atrocities carried out, the lack of food, medical treatment or medicines, clothing – ending up wearing a ‘jap-happy’ which was just a loincloth. Death became a daily, perhaps hourly, companion. Throughout this he kept a photo of Hazel, the link to Aberdeen which helped him throughout the ordeal.
Eventually Urquhart became so ill that he had to be moved to a hospital camp. Not what we would think of as a hospital but the closest that the POWs had. He spent some time there eventually helping out as a medical orderly, again living this very singular life. Once it was obvious he was well enough, and the Japanese were running out of workers, he was told he would be going back to work, as if he had stopped!
He was in fact moved back to Singapore and loaded onto a merchant ship for transportation to Japan as slave labour. Again they were packed into the hold in such a way that nobody could sit, move, lie down and hardly breathe. The hatches were then shut! This was a hell-hole. Once a day a bucket of rice was lowered into the hold –this was the only food supplied and from the rice the only source of water – and you were not guaranteed to get any! Men died. On top of this the men were very aware that they were liable to be torpedoed by Allied submarines, which did happen. As the ship sank Urquhart was forced out of the hold by the pressure of water coming in – the crew and guards had taken all the lifeboats and rafts. He was left in the water with hundreds of others. Some died, some were picked up by the Allies but, his luck being what it is, he was picked up by the Japanese and taken to the Japanese mainland.
This saw him entering the final stages of his incarceration, working in an open cast mine. The place was called Omuta and was a few miles from a seaport called Nagasaki. Here he worked for the last few months of the war, watching Allied bombers go overhead until one day he is knocked over by a wind. This was the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki.
The end of the war saw him move into the care of the Americans and the trip home, via USA. Initially the Americans were so helpful that they unwittingly overdid it. So much food was available, but the ex-prisoners’ stomachs could not deal with it. Some died through this kindness. Eventually the diet was arranged to suit. In Urquhart’s case he needed rice as his stomach was so injured that he had to have rice and to this day he has rice about 3 times per week. It took 3 months to travel home with the Americans doing everything they could to help and assist the ex-POWs. This was in stark contrast to the way they were greeted on return to UK – arrived at Southampton, here is a warrant to Aberdeen. Urquhart’s bitterness is very apparent and understandable at what appeared to be the government trying to suppress the prisoners’ stories to ensure that they did not upset the Japanese, as they were trying to build up the British Empire in the East again. The shabby treatment, almost bullied into refusing a war pension and how his service ended left Urquhart with bad feelings that last to this day – and no wonder. The British government has never been good at treating returning soldiers, and did little to cover themselves with glory over this episode.
This is an excellent book, told by a sprightly 91 year old and highlights a horrible period which I am sure I would not have had the character to survive. This book should not be taken as only Urquhart’s story but as a tribute to all those who suffered the Japanese POW camps. His story could be reflected a thousand-fold. I would recommend this book to all who wish to read about this shameful period in human existence. A well written book and this review only scratches the story, a story that needs to be told and remembered by history.
I give the book 4 stars