DEATH WAS OUR BEDMATE – Review by Mark Barnes

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DEATH WAS OUR BEDMATE
155th (Lanarkshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment and the Japanese 1941-1945
By Agnes McEwan and Campbell Thomson
Published Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 78159 169 7

Review by Mark Barns for War History Online

In my recent review of Shanghai 1937 I made the point that, however unpleasant it was to read it made change to escape from the agonies of reading about western troops suffering at the hands of the Japanese. Well, here we are on that familiar ground yet again and the pain is as bad and drawn out as ever.

This remarkable and lovingly prepared book tells the story of a single Territorial regiment, sent out to the Far East just as things were hotting up in the western desert to face the uncertainties of events as the policies of the Empire of Japan, the colonial powers and the United States staggered into a terrible war of conquest and eventual nuclear catastrophe.

But that is a bigger picture and this excellent account concerns itself with the officers and men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry cavalry regiment who became gunners. There are some remarkable survivors in this story – not least a man named Dick Gwillim, who somehow managed to escape the Lancastria, the Arandora Star (a ship I know well from my grandfather’s service) and then his time out there in that Hell. God bless him.

The authors remind us early on that there is no official history of the regiment and so this book has effectively become it. They are not professional writers and I hope they will not be offended when I say this shows. But this does not in any way detract from a sound piece of work.

The book follows a logical course with the mobilisation and conversion of the regiment from cavalry to artillery and progress from Britain out to Malaya. We are treated to an excellent account of the actions the 155th fought there and the eventual withdrawal to and subsequent disaster on Singapore. It is all uncomfortable reading, but it is only the prelude.

You can watch that old chestnut the Bridge on the River Kwai and profess to having some notion of the suffering of the men in captivity. Try to imagine what it was like in Singapore during the horrors of those final hours before the inevitable such as when the Japanese got to the Alexandra Hospital, where patients were butchered on the operating table while under anaesthetic. All these notions add up and yet you haven’t begun to think about the thousands of Chinese they slaughtered on Singapore and what they did in other places. Men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry witnessed these things and suffered untold horrors themselves. They came home with their injuries and these terrible memories to less than a glorious welcome from a far from grateful country.

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I have been to Hong Kong and visited the cemetery at Sai Wan and seen the graves of men repatriated from the awful mines on Taiwan, or Formosa, as it was then known. Not to be moved is impossible. Among them is the grave of Gunner Donald McCallum of Glasgow. He was 29 years old and we learn from the nominal roll in this book that having survived the nightmare journey from Changi he endured life in two camps before he died at Heito on the 7th of February, 1945. Where he rests now is a beautiful place, but we need to remember him and his mates because they are very far away.

I’ll move on here, because I have to be honest and admit I find these POW accounts intensely difficult to read. The publishers wanted to send me more and I declined. But because I find these things tough for reasons which have nothing to do with the writing, it doesn’t mean you will feel the same. There is much to admire here.

This is a solid story of wonderful men who gave their all. They have nothing to prove. I hope this history of their regiment stands the test of time. A lot of work and a great deal of love went into a book which acts as a memorial to so many fine men whose honour shall endure. God bless them.

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