When you buy your copy of this book, and I really think you should; it probably won’t come with the rather dramatic press release. “This book explores and questions whether this was the greatest medical disaster of WW2 and who caused it”.
Blimey! Strong stuff!
Never mind all that, this book was written by the bloke who brought us Men and Sheds. Come on! I like a shed, me. I’ve actually got two copies of it.
Serious head back on, I have to say this is a really excellent book. It recounts the tragedy of the Chindits, and I say tragedy deliberately because it was one; from both the vista of the top table and from the jungle floor. The untimely death of Orde Wingate will always be essential to the story and any account of this most singular of men is told with power and economy. It is difficult to tell if he could be liked or would have cared. It would be nice to have seen him proved right, but his force of character, right or wrong, was too powerful for a great many mere mortals who found out in the hardest of ways after the man himself had met his end.
The author’s father gave up policing to be a Scottish soldier and ended up fighting separate wars against the Japanese and against the jungle, which won hands down. The central plank of this book, smartly dramatised in the press bumf, is about how the elements did more damage to the Chindits than the yellow peril. Disease was more danger than mere lead or cold steel. The men who faced it suffered a lifetime of ills thanks to the micro-critters that entered their bodies through their skin or through the water they drank or food they ate while they trudged through monsoon and all manner of hell to fight a sometimes reluctant enemy. This is a terrible story of wasted lives killed by Mother Nature, ignorance and not a little neglect, much more than any soldier of Emperor Hirohito.
You will marvel at the American pilots of the little Sentinel planes who flew into lumpy postage stamp fields to take out the sick and wounded. There is the stunning dense jungle fire-fight when emaciated Jocks routed a group of Japs with the bayonet while Piper Bill Lark played them in. Picture that! Get your head round cutting the voice boxes out of your mules to keep them quiet; think of the West African troops, lost voices from the jungle war; Japanese officers on white chargers; endless K rations and the leeches, always the leeches.
The book is tinged with the bitterness the author must feel that his father, who never talked about it, had to suffer such privations, partly because of the angry game of pass the parcel going on between the Chindit leadership and the Anglophobe Vinegar Joe Stilwell and Lord Mountbatten – commander of SEAC, South East Asia Command to most of us, but Save England’s Asian Colonies to quite a lot of Americans. Bill Slim is in there somewhere and I find it hard to be harsh towards him at all, but you can’t help wondering what would have happened had Wingate, this weirdo one off, hadn’t flown into a mountain.
Stand on the Thames Embankment up by the MoD building and you cannot fail to miss the wonderful Battle of Britain Monument. It is a stunning piece of modern sculpture and you can look at it for ages, finding new bits you hadn’t noticed before and always enjoying new elements as the light changes. It tells a story and it is multi-faceted, just like the Battle. This is just what the artist, Paul Day, intended. It encapsulates the importance of the Battle in British history.
Turn round and walk across the road and there in the gardens of the MoD stands the altogether modest memorial to the Chindits, a sculpture, as you would expect; of a chinthe, the lion-like creature which Wingate chose as the name for his Special Force. Somehow, it became corrupted as Chindit, and although their battles against man and elements will never have the significance of the Battle of Britain, just for a short time, these amazing men were taking the war to the Japanese in the most inhospitable place on Earth and proving they could win. Their monument should be bigger. In its own way, Gordon Thorburn’s book is a memorial to his dad and all the others who were in that horrible place and should be read by everyone.
JOCKS IN THE JUNGLE
Black Watch & Cameronians As Chindits
By Gordon Thorburn
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Military £19.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 792 7