Archive for the ‘2nd World War’ Category

Remembering an escape from Singapore — 75 years on

August 12, 2017

Capt. Mark Pillai c. 1950

My father would have been 106 years old yesterday.

Seventy five years ago he was the first Allied officer (the first of only five) to escape from being a Japanese prisoner-of-war and successfully return to India. He left Singapore on 7th May 1942 and managed to reach India on 26th August 1942.

First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942

He was the first Allied prisoner of war to escape from Changi and return to India. He used to tell us that he had travelled a thousand miles on foot, a thousand miles by boat and a thousand miles by train to make his journey of 3000 miles to freedom. In 1968 he tried to get a copy of his official debriefing report from the War Office in London to cross-check his manuscript written from memory long after the event. But he found that the report had been classified to be held secret for 50 years.

In 1942, the Allies were desperate for “good news” and the story of the escape was widely distributed – though labelled top secret – and only within Allied military circles. Recognition was rushed through as “Most Urgent” and he was awarded the Military Cross. However, the official documents remained secret for 50 years and were not released till 1992. Apparently the 50 year secret classification was because his debriefing included not only the names of people who had helped him along the way but also the names of people he felt were Japanese collaborators.

The documents below are the Royal Approval for that award initialed by King George VI on 11th September just two weeks after his return. He received the award from Field Marshal Wavell.

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C.

 


 

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Japanese right-wingers continue to try and rewrite history

February 4, 2014

Victors write history.

But almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War the militaristic faction of the Japanese right-wing are still in a state of denial about the result. Their attempts to rewrite history – especially the actions and behaviour of the Japanese military in China – have never ceased but have never before had much impact or much support even within Japan. The Nanjing massacre and the use of comfort women by the military in occupied territories are often downplayed or even denied by the revisionists. But now there is a rightist party in government which is in tacit agreement with many of these extreme views.The most potent symbol for the militaristic and nationalistic heritage in Japan is the Yasakuni shrine. As Mark Selden writes

Japan’s Yasukuni problem is inseparable from the fact that nationalism is the dominant ideology of our era. …… In the postwar, with Japan at peace and occupied by US forces, the shrine has played a role in structuring how the war is remembered and presented to the Japanese people. It did so within a framework crafted by the occupation authorities who exonerated the emperor of all responsibility for initiating or waging war. ….. Not only would the emperor not be deposed or tried as a war criminal, he would be shielded even from testifying at the Tokyo Trial. The verdict at Tokyo, sentencing Tojo and a small number of prominent military and government officials to death, as well as the convictions of thousands of soldiers and police officials tried in B and C class tribunals, in leaving untouched Japan’s supreme wartime leader, essentially absolved the Japanese people of the responsibility to examine their own behavior in the era of colonialism and war. For these reasons, the US as well as Japan ultimately shares responsibility for resolving issues of war responsibility that it helped to create, including those associated with the emperor and with Yasukuni Shrine. 

Emperor Hirohito at the Yasakuni shrine 1935

Emperor Hirohito at the Yasakuni shrine 1935

Just a month ago the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasakuni Shrine to honour the convicted war criminals enshrined there.

BBCWhatever Shinzo Abe says, any visit to the Yasakuni shrine by a Japanese prime minister is deeply political and sure to cause offence. In the 1960s and 70s, the spirits of scores of convicted Japanese war criminals were “enshrined” there. The most controversial were the 14 “Class A” war criminals, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo, who were “enshrined” in the late 1970s. These men were the ones who ordered and oversaw Japan’s brutal war in China and South East Asia. …..

…… Close observers of the Japanese prime minister say he is at heart a nationalist and a historical revisionist. He believes the trials that convicted Japan’s wartime leaders were “victors’ justice”. His own grandfather Nobusuke Kishi served in the war cabinet and was arrested by the Americans on suspicion of being a Class A war criminal. He was later released without charge.

School text books are now beginning to downplay or remain silent about Japanese atrocities (not that they have ever been fully accepting of their occurrence or of Japanese responsibility). Now this revisionism is spreading to the national broadcaster NHK and again with some support from the government.

JapanDailyPressThe Japanese public broadcasting firm NHK is under fire again as another senior manager sparked controversy over his comments denying any massacre from happening in the Nanjing province of China in 1930s. Naoki Hyakuta, member of the 12-man management committee for programming policy and budget-setting, denied reports of rape and murder by Japanese troops in China during 1937-38, shrugging it off as “propaganda.” …… 

…. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga justified the right-wing novelist’s statements, saying that he is entitled to his opinions. Speaking to the press, he said that he is aware of the reports “but has learnt (expressing personal views) doesn’t violate the Broadcast Law.” Fears of the broadcasting firm molding into PM Abe’s nationalist policy are starting to circulate with Hyakuta’s comments following new chief Katsuto Momii’s statements last month about the use of “comfort women,” or sexual slaves, being a normal practice during wartime, with many other nations doing the same.

Jan 31, 2014:The already embattled new chief of NHK is set to face a Diet committee today on claims that his comments about the “comfort women” system of World War II can be considered “political interferance.”  ……. Katsuto Momii will be grilled by the Parliament over his statement during his first press conference as the new chairman. He said that the use of sexual slaves, or comfort women, during times of war was also being practiced by other countries like France, Germany, and the United States, among others. While he has already apologized for his comments, saying they were his personal beliefs and not that of NHK, the international furor over it has not abated. ….

Certainly there is a growing concern about growing Chinese might in South East Asia and this concern is partially shared in the US. So the US, while disapproving of the revisionist trends in Japanese government circles, has been fairly mild in its criticism as long as the Japanese target is China. In the territorial disputes between Japan and China for example the US generally supports the Japanese positions.

I perceive a risk that as the Japanese commercial predominance weakens there could be an upsurge in the militaristic ambitions of the nationalistic right. It is only my perception of course but having lived in Japan and in Germany, I sense a greater risk of sudden chaos with the Japanese militaristic nationalists than with the German neo-Nazis. The manner is which the rest of Europe acts as a check and balance against extremism is something missing in Japan.

Commemorating the escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark to Sweden 70 years ago

September 30, 2013

image Pierre Mens

The Öresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen with Malmö will be lit up on Tuesday night to commemorate the escape of 7,800 Jews from occupied Denmark to Sweden. They were evacuated by an armada of Swedish and Danish fishing boats with the help of the Danish resistance. The Nazi’s had planned to have a Great Arrest on the night of the Jewish New Year on 1st October, 1943 and transfer the Danish Jews to concentration camps. But their targets largely disappeared. The Gestapo succeeded only in arresting some 450 people.

Wikipedia: Only around 450 Danish Jews were captured by the Germans, and most of these were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia. After these Jews’ deportation, leading Danish civil servants persuaded the Germans to accept packages of food and medicine for the prisoners; furthermore, Denmark persuaded the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to extermination camps.

The Local:The light manifestation will be focused on the man-made island Peberholm in the middle of the Öresund straight and along the bridge itself.

“Öresund was the route to safety in October 1943. It is a beautiful idea, to use the foundation of the fixed link over the Öresund, which rests on Peberholm, as a platform for all the lanterns we want to light in the October darkness,” said Ingeborg Philipsen at the Museum Amager in Denmark.

Some 700 lanterns will be lit on Peberholm to symbolize that “October 1943 was a light in the darkness”.

One of those who escaped was Nils Bohr and Lubos Motzl describes his story which I reblog here. His reference to 60,000 Danes who escaped to Sweden must include all Danes during the II World War and not just the Jews. I am also not sure if his reference to the help provided by the Swedish aristocracy is entirely accurate. The Swedish King, Gustav V was an alleged Nazi sympathiser – even if not a fanatic. He is “credited” with blackmailing the Swedish Government into permitting the transit of German troops through Sweden by threatening abdication. He certainly had great admiration for Hitler’s actions against Russia and even sent a congratulatory letter to Hitler – privately – against the wishes of his government:

Bohr’s dramatic escape: 70 years ago

Exactly 70 years ago, on September 29th, 1943, the Danish underground movement received the message. Brothers Niels and Harald Bohr – who had a Jewish mother but that wasn’t the only sin – would have to be arrested and transferred to Germany.

So far, Bohr would be often invited to emigrate but he would be refusing it with words resembling Zeman’s “Why should I leave? They should leave!”

But the new situation was way too serious so both brothers and all of their offspring and families had to escape Denmark. So Bohr and his wife Margareta are suddenly walking on a Copenhagen street and meet a biochemistry professor they know. He is a part of the resistance movement and gives them a secret sign, everything is fine.

They go to a Copenhagen dwellers’ popular recreational beach with fancy buildings outside of the capital. Harald, his wife, and children are there in a moment, too. The boat needs two hours. The fishermen, also belonging to the underground, know the schedule of German patrols so they may optimize the trajectory. On Thursday, September 30th, they finally reached a Swedish village.

Margareta stays in the village. Niels Bohr has some extra work to do. He takes an express train to Stockholm. There he meets with the secretary of state and other officials. Ultimately, he has a meeting with the king, too. Bohr has almost certainly contributed to the official October 1943 publicly declared decision of Sweden to accept all refugees. Thanks to the friendly and courageous Swedish aristocratic reaction, about 60,000 Danes escape a German prison during October 1943.

Sweden is not quite safe for Bohr, either. Germany could send secret agents or soldiers to silence him. Britain and America are safer; they seem like a more practical place for Bohr to help the Allies to kick the German bastards into their socialist balls (or, in the leader’s case, ball).

Bohr agrees with the British proposal. His condition is that his son Aage, a physics student, must accompany him. Now, the main technical task is to transfer Bohr from Sweden to Britain. In between these two countries, you find Norway which is occupied just like Denmark.

The solution is a British combat aircraft, a bomber called Mosquito. The model is fast and can reach great heights – and escape from most German aircraft into the clouds. At some points, it’s actually crucial for the height to be above 10 kilometers to be mostly safe; this also requires the British pilots to teach Bohr to use the oxygen mask. Where would Bohr sit? Well, in the bomb bay! Aage would fly in another aircraft.

A small technical glitch forces Niels Bohr’s aircraft to return. He wants to take the first yellow cab. The Swedish agents are pulling their guns. But OK, they force him to sleep at this airport and nervously await the invasion of some Germans who could just find out where Bohr is and make a “friendly visit” at every moment.

Mosquito’s average speed is about 600 km/h which means that 1,200 km to Britain is a 2-hour trip. Things went fine and the Mosquito landed in Northern Scotland. The pilots immediately go to see Bohr in the bomb bay. A sleeping and tired man didn’t hear any instructions because the helmet wasn’t large enough for his quantum skull. Also, he failed to use the oxygen mask so he fainted somewhere in the clouds but survived. “Next time, it will be better,” he promised.

A more luxurious commercial aircraft took the co-father of quantum mechanics to London. He met some similarly active British physicists like Chadwick. Niels Bohr was impressed by the progress made by British on their tube alloys project (British nuclear bomb). In December 1943, he would fly to the U.S. As guests of the Manhattan Project, Niels and Aage would be renamed as Nicholas Baker and James Baker, respectively, for security reasons. I doubt that this secret name enabled Aage Bohr to become Reagan’s Secretary of State.

Bohrs would only spend some time in Los Alamos. Oppenheimer credited Bohr for contributing to modulated neutron initiators and for his being an inspiring role model for younger physicists like Feynman – although Feynman himself wasn’t exactly obsessed about authorities of any kind.

Incidentally, Enrico Fermi started the nuclear age 10 months before Bohr fled Denmark. It just happens that Fermi would celebrate his 112th birthday today. Enrico Fermi was born on September 29th, 1901.

75th anniversary of the first Spitfire flight

March 5, 2011

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first Spitfire flight, a replica of the plane will be flying over Kent.

Spitfire

The Spitfire Society's facsimile of the prototype Spitfire: image The Spitfire Society

The first Spitfire prototype took off on 5 March 1936 from Eastleigh airfield, which is now Southampton airport. This weekend, a replica spitfire is making frequent flypasts over the Battle of Britain Memorial site at Capel-le-Ferne. Visitors will also be able to see a facsimile of a Spitfire K5054.

The Spitfire Society is working with the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust to mark the anniversary of the Spitfire’s first flight on 5 and 6 March. A group of Spitfire Society members built the K5054 which will be on display over the weekend at the Battle of Britain Memorial site and visitors will be able to sit in its cockpit. There will also be technical experts and pilots at the memorial in Capel-le-Ferne on hand to talk to the public. There is also the opportunity to fly alongside the airborne Spitfire (Mark Five) BM597 in a helicopter.

Supermarine Spitfire: image mstation.org

Essential for British air defence in the Second World War the Spitfire’s wing design allowed for a higher top speed than many of its contemporaries and afforded the plane a manouverability that many pilots credited with saving their lives.

Designed by R.J Mitchell in 1931 the Spitfire initially saw action as an interceptor though it’s popularity with pilots soon led to it finding roles as a fighter-bomber, photo-reconnaisance and training plane.

About 25 Spitfires are still in flying condition.

Review of “3000 Miles to Freedom”

December 25, 2010

I posted in August about my father’s manuscript describing his escape from Singapore after its fall in 1942.

Mark Pillai as a Captain

Three Thousand Miles to Freedom

A review by Abhimanyu Singh appeared in last Sunday’s  New Sunday Express entitled:

Two takes on an obscure, yet epic journey

First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942

August 26, 2010

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C.

My father died in 1988 leaving a manuscript of his escape from Singapore and his return to India after the fall of Singapore in 1942. He would have been 99 on 11th August this year.

He was the first Allied prisoner of war to escape from Changi and return to India. He used to tell us that he had travelled a thousand miles on foot, a thousand miles by boat and a thousand miles by train to make his journey of 3000 miles to freedom. In 1968 he tried to get a copy of his official debriefing report from the War Office in London to cross-check his manuscript written from memory long after the event. But he found that the report had been classified to be held secret for 50 years.

In early 2000 I found that a copy of the official report was available in the Singapore War Archives. The report had been circulated to all the Allied Armies and the Australian copy had found its way into the Singapore Archives sometime after 1992 when the material was declassified. Apparently the 50 year classification was because the report contained not only the names of people who had helped him along the way but also the names of people he felt were Japanese collaborators.

Mark Pillai as a Captain circa 1950

He was accompanied by two others; one of whom ( a medical officer) decided to settle along the way. The second was a civilian friend S. Radhakrishnan. To avoid the unneccessary hassle of getting a civilian back through Allied lines they invented the story of the “Singapore Volunteers” and passed Radhakrishnan off as an officer in this fictitious regiment. The subterfuge served to get through the Allied check-posts and later Radhakrishnan was properly commissioned into the Indian Army.

For about 6 months after his return my father had a “minder” – a brother officer from a different regiment but who came from his part of the country in Southern India – to ensure that my father’s escape was not a ruse to establish a  “sleeping” collaborator.

http://www.nas.gov.sg/1stcab/syonan/SyonanChap7.html (link updated 25th August 2013 since the original link to the National Archives of Singapore was outdated).

Australian War Memorial, Series AWM 54 Item 779/10/4, “Escape narrative of Lieut M M Pillai, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners, and Lieut V Radhakrishnan, Singapore Volunteers – Appendix: Treatment of Civilians and Atrocities”, p.33, CD No. D2006100078.

Eventually the manuscript was checked and a publisher ( Lancer Military Publications) interested enough in an old Second World War escape story was found.

http://www.lancerpublishers.com/catalog/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=Pillai&osCsid=569721b13eaaa324b7b54cf34fc36de3&x=5&y=5

Three Thousand Miles to Freedom

http://www.lancerpublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=710

This is a an escape story. It is the story of escape from a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Singapore to India across coastal waters and Malayan and Burmese jungles.

Capt Mark Pillai was a Bombay Sapper officer in Malaya when Singapore fell and the Allies surrendered. This is the story of his escape from the Changi POW camp in 1942. He was 31 years old at the time and he was accompanied by an Indian medical officer and an Indian civilian acquaintance.

It is an inspirational story of escape. Escape stories frequently tend to chronologically list events without adequately conveying the fears and apprehension or the anxiety and the hardships that soldiers endure, nor the will and inspiration they galvanise in doing so. This is a compelling story, simply told, which brings to life the meaning of escape from captivity in enemy territory in an age long gone.

It is a story of understated bravery and gallantry, where three Indians made a daily tryst with destiny over a protracted period of time, attempting as it were to do their duty as they saw it, in an effort to live to fight another day when both the big picture and the tactical situation seemed hopeless.

It is a story of hope which reveals the stubborn spirit of humanity and courage that epitomizes good soldiers anywhere when they turn adversity into opportunity and inspire others to do the same.

Mark Pillai was awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell for his gallantry.

(more…)

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