This month sees the 75th Anniversary of the end of the 2nd World War in Far East, in particular Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989. As a way of commemorating all those who fought during that conflict, we have been featuring articles about local service men and in this issue we feature two more. One who returned and another who sadly did not.
Walter Fergus Talbott (1908 – 1944)
My Father Walter Talbott, son of George Henry Talbott the baker in Bath Street Syston, was in the Burma Campaign and enlisted in 1942. When he left home he was in his thirties and as I was only two years old at the time I hardly knew him. At this age he was considered to be quite old to go to war although he was a very fit man and classified as A1 (Medical Category).
When my Mother died in the Year 2000 I inherited the letters my parents had written to each other while he was away. There are around 200 of these, which have lain undisturbed for 76 years and, now I have unearthed them, my journey is underway to start to get to know more about him and uncover some of his experiences of being part of Wingate’s Special Force in Burma. In his letters he made it clear that he could not discuss where he was in the World or what kind of work he was engaged in. He constantly referred to his work as ‘a job that had to be done’.
After a period of initial training in various locations in the UK he had a few days embarkation leave before he sailed from Liverpool on the 15th April 1943, bound for Freetown where he spent one week before he set sail again on the 5th May, this time for Cape Town and then on to Bombay where he spent three days ashore. He describes the wonderful welcome he and his comrades received in each location. He continued the journey by sea to Jharkhand where he continued his training moving from camp to camp in this densely forested and mountainous area. Tents were set up on sites that had been cleared of grasses that were “anything up to ten feet high and very thick”. Although conditions were very basic he said, “We are very proud of the site, and there is, as I have said, plenty more work to do”. The troops slept under mosquito nets and carried out most tasks squatting on the ground, a skill my Father claimed he had become particularly adept at. He found the howls of the jackals in the night “blood curdling” and the vultures spell binding as they hovered and glided overhead.
The entry in his diary for 7th August 1943 reads “Hell of a march today on a rail track about 20 miles”. He also writes “What a life in the villages – dirt and cows seem to be everywhere”. He goes on to describe how the natives gather around the camp wanting to “repair beds, do washing or sell something and they never have any change”. It was the monsoon season; it was humid and rained continuously for days. And as he explained, “Nature here is very queer, you never know what is going to happen next. One minute it is very hot and sunny and the next it is pouring and when it rains here believe me it rains, but we soon get dry again when the sun comes out”. He found the nights very cold and the days extremely hot with temperatures of 110°F (43°C) – 112°F (44°C). He wrote that he was “getting more brown each day”.
His letters are very positive as he describes the beauty of the natural world around him. “I attended a church service a few days ago, we can’t have them very often owing to moving about so much and it was grand. It was held under the trees just before sundown and to hear the lads singing hymns and the birds singing their evening song was beautiful”.
By the end of February beginning of March 1944 he was based at the Headquarters of the Special Force (Chindits) India Command in preparation for ‘Operation Thursday’ the code name given to an airborne invasion phase of the Campaign, which started on 5th March 1944. Gliders flew in at night in bright moonlight and troops prepared clearings for Dakota troop carriers to bring in the main force. Heavy guns were also flown in and reassembled in the clearings.`
The last letter from my Father was dated 9th April 1944. Two days later on the 11th he was killed in an aircraft accident and died two days later from extensive burns and a fractured pelvis. He was only 35 years old. In a letter of condolence to my Mother, Major Simkins, India Command, wrote “At the time of his death he was engaged on special duty, carrying out a job which will one day be accounted an epic of the War and you have every reason to be proud of the gallant manner in which he carried out that duty”.
He was finally buried in the Maynamati War Cemetery Comilla in Bangladesh. The War Army Graves Service (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) moved graves from isolated places in the surrounding country, into this cemetery where they could be maintained. I am so pleased he has a final resting place.
It has been a privilege to read his diary and the letters and there are many more letters still to read including those my Mother sent to him. I feel that I have already gained an initial insight into the world of a very talented, warm and sensitive man and I look forward to developing my journey to increase my understanding of his life, albeit a very short one.
Jane A Matthews (née Talbott)
V. J. Day in the Far East A WW2 Sailor’s Story Told by His Daughter
I think it is almost impossible to imagine what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and have to go off to fight in World War Two, yet that is what many of our fathers and grandfathers did. And by remembering their stories on V.J. Day we honour the memory of all those who served in WW2.
Although 15th August 1945 is the official date of the end of the war, this was in fact the date that Emperor Hirohito made a radio broadcast to his people announcing his decision to surrender to the Allies. However, it was not until 25th August that the Emperor issued a decree ordering all Japanese forces to demobilise and cease fighting, and a number of other events took place before the official surrender ceremony was held on 12th September at the Municipal Building of Singapore (now known as City Hall), marking the end of Japanese Occupation* in Southeast Asia.
I expect quite a few local people will remember Victor Day who spent the last seven years of his life in Syston, as Vic led an active social life. Vic Day was my father, and served in the Royal Navy during WW2. He volunteered for the navy in 1939 at the age of nineteen. Like many men of his generation, he never spoke of his wartime experiences to his children when they were growing up. However, in his old age Vic shared some of his stories with family members, and this is his story of the end of the war. ?In the summer of 1945 Vic was ordered to go to the Far East. He told his daughter Felicity that he thought ‘we were all being sent out there to die.’ Vic’s rank at this time was ‘Acting Sub-Lieutenant’ and he was ordered to take a small landing craft to Singapore.
As Vic’s small ship approached Singapore in late August 1945, the Japanese forces were actually in the act of surrendering. Because the Singapore harbour was littered with the hulks of large ships that had been bombed Vic (although only a junior officer), was ordered to take a small part in the official surrender of the Japanese army as his flat-bottomed landing craft could negotiate the harbour. While higher-up personnel were taking the main surrender, Vic was ordered to go to the notorious Changhi Jail where many prisoners of war were held, and to receive the ceremonial sword of surrender from the Japanese officer who had been in charge of the jail. Vic’s orders were then to take the sword to a British Admiral whose ship was waiting outside the harbour.
Victor was deeply shocked by the shocking and starving condition of the skeletal inmates of the jail although he never talked about this until the end of his life. He also, (out of respect for those prisoners) vowed never to buy a Japanese car. * Although this is the official version, I know that British army personnel were sent to Sumatra at the end of 1945 to route out pockets of Japanese resistance, as local man Ernest Gamble (in the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment) was sent there. As Sumatra was under Dutch government at that time, he and his compatriots were paid in Dutch Guilders and did not return home until well into 1946.
We know from family stories that Vic told some of his children and grand-children that he was assigned various unusual jobs at the end of the war. One of these was that he was put in charge of a glass-making factory in Java. Presumably the original manager had been ‘got rid of’ in some unpleasant way by the Japanese forces when they overran the country. After the Japanese surrendered, anyone who was British and in some official role was then designated to act in a supervisory capacity as an interim measure. Vic sent home a few pieces of beautiful glassware during his time there, but we have no idea for how long he was in charge of the factory.
Vic ended the war in the Far East and after various other experiences he was told that as the landing craft’s commander, it was his responsibility to sell the craft before he could return home. Vic sold the landing craft to a local mechanic out there, to be used as a floating mobile garage workshop.
Vic’s return to England wasn’t as straight-forward as many of his compatriots though. He was offered a promotion if he would agree to command a ship and take it back to England. Vic agreed as it would mean around six weeks of extra pay, so he took command of the ship and sailed it off to the bunkering yard to fill the ship’s bunkers with coal for the trip home. He was refused a full load of coal but instead he was given just enough coal to get him to the next port. Vic’s journey home took far longer than he’d expected as, at each supply port, he was given just sufficient coal to reach the next port on his route. At one of the Spanish ports the staff there tried to extract a bribe from Vic to give him any fuel. He never really forgave the (whole) Spanish nation for that, as he was so disgusted!
On his return to Britain, Vic was offered a Commission in the navy, but he refused this as he said ‘I had a baby daughter at home that I’d never seen’. So he returned to England, where he lived with his in-laws, his wife and his baby daughter until they managed to get a home of their own a year or more later.