Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

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Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

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Poland and the Second World War

This is the third of four reports from the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This event was chaired by Allan Little, the featured speaker being Halik Kochanski, who has recently published a book documenting what happened to Poland during World War II. Various books have appeared on this subject over the years but, according to the author, none of them have attempted to give us the whole picture. In her book ‘The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War’, the author has attempted to do this.

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I am not qualified to say how successful she has been: I have only read one book on this subject – Jan Karski’s “Story of a Secret State,” published during the war itself. However, to judge by the reviews it is likely she has done very well. This post is intended as a reaction to the event rather than the book, but I have included at the end a summary review from Publishers Weekly.

After a brief introduction from Alan Little, Kochanski gave a talk on her subject. It was immediately clear that – though some manage to be both – the lady is an academic rather than a performer. Sticking closely to her notes, she showed slight signs of nervousness and on occasion said ‘as you can see from the map.’ I don’t know about others, but I couldn’t.

Among the contentious subjects she dealt with was the treatment of Jews by Poles during the German occupation. Without denying anything which had taken place, she pointed out that the penalty for a Pole harbouring a Jew was more extreme than in any other country. Both would be shot. She also pointed out that Poland was the only occupied country with an organisation set up with the sole purpose of helping Jews.

As these events go, Kochanski’s talk was unusually short, coming in at under twenty minutes, so the rest of the time was taken up with questions and the occasional statement from the floor. For me, two things stood out. The first was the appearance of a conspiracy theory. A lady who identified herself as Polish complained rather bitterly that the UK government had withheld publication of relevant files for twenty years past the time when they should have been published. They still weren’t available. Kochanski didn’t deny this. However, another member of the audience also addressed this issue. She was a historian. The files in question were all publicly available and had been for some time. She would know, she’d consulted them all in connection with her research. Furthermore, a committee had been formed which had access to relevant MI6 files. Several members of this committee were Polish, and it was ‘unprecedented’ that foreign nationals had access to these files.

A second piece of information came as news to me, and no doubt it shouldn’t have. This concerned the shocking massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyn. When the bodies were discovered it was assumed that the massacre had been carried out by the Nazis – it would, after all, be entirely in character. But at some point it became clear that the massacre had in fact been carried out by the Soviets. Yet when the intelligence services in UK learned the truth, they sat on it, sticking to the line that the massacre had been carried out by the Germans. Unfortunately for them, the Soviets eventually admitted it, but several more years passed before the UK authorities confirmed that they had known this for some time.

Kochanski’s parents settled in UK and Polish was not spoken in the household, her parents believing that the family should integrate in their new society. I think this misconceived and very sad. Few things could be more useful than growing up speaking two languages, and I can think of no reason why this should be a barrier to integration.

Kochanski spoke to a full house, many of whom were Polish or had Polish connections. Her reception was friendly to say the least and I have little doubt her book will do well. From what I can see, it deserves to.

Extract From Publishers Weekly

Kochanski, a British military historian, integrates concise, clear, and persuasive campaign analyses with an account of the brutality suffered by Poles under German and Soviet occupation during WWII. She also examines the complex internal politics of Poland’s armed forces in exile, and Poland’s international position. She incorporates the creation and performance of the 1st Polish Army on the Eastern Front into a narrative that in most Western accounts is too often dominated by action in Italy and Northwest Europe. Her treatment of the Polish Resistance and the 1944 uprising is excellent. She also establishes the complex mix of operations, logistics, and politics behind the Allies’ limited support for the Home Army in Warsaw. Kochanski’s sympathies clearly lie with Poland’s exile government in London, but she neither conceals nor trivializes policies and decisions that often proved self-defeating. Kochanski also gives an account of the Holocaust and the thorny issue of Polish collaboration in it. Above all, this is a story of expedience: the critical decisions that had to be taken, the terrible role of sheer chance, …the simple desire to survive under the most difficult circumstances. And expedients, as Kochanski ably demonstrates, are not always wise.