BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
JUNGLE SOLDIER: The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman, by Brian Moynahan
, June 26, 2010
Major thorn in the Japanese side
The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman
by Brian Moynahan
Paperback: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$34.95
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
Most of us have heard stories of daring Allied resistance to the Nazi occupation of Europe. However, comparatively little is known about counter-insurgency operations conducted by Allied troops in Asia against the Japanese invaders. Brian Moynahan's fascinating new book, which details the life of Lieutenant-Colonel Freddy Chapman, addresses this deficiency.
Chapman was born in London in 1907. His mother died shortly afterwards, and his father, who had migrated to Canada, was later killed in Belgium in World War I. Freddy and his older brother Robert were foster-cared by an elderly Anglican clergyman and his wife on the borders of England's Lake District.
The first signs of Chapman's love of the outdoors, as well as his resilience, tenacity and optimism in the face of adversity, were evident in the lengthy forays which he made into the country as a child.
As an adult he developed these skills further when he joined various expeditionary teams to Greenland and Tibet. The first section of Jungle Soldier recounts these adventures in some detail. Before World War II, Chapman had published accounts of expeditions which established his reputation as an outdoor adventurer.
Just before the outbreak of war, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders. However, given his survival skills, he was sent abroad to train Australian and New Zealand troops on Wilsons Promontory - the southernmost point of Australia's mainland - before being sent to Singapore.
The British plan was that, were Singapore to fall, British and allied soldiers would be left behind to conduct raids against the Japanese and to train local inhabitants to wage guerrilla warfare. Ironically, most of the raids in which Chapman directly took part occurred, by his own admission, approximately two weeks before the February 1942 fall of Singapore. From behind enemy lines, Chapman and others successfully attacked convoys of Japanese troops and destroyed installations such as bridges.
After the fall of Singapore, Chapman and other team members joined forces with communist guerrillas. He spent the next two-and-a-quarter years on the run from the Japanese and bandit gangs. He travelled considerable distances, usually by night and through jungle or abandoned rubber plantations, avoiding hostile local inhabitants who were likely to betray him to the Japanese.
He was high on the Japanese list of most wanted men, and at one point was actually captured by the Japanese. However, he used his initiative and courage to escape before he could be handed over to Japan's dreaded secret military police, the Kampeitai. Incredibly, the head of the communists in Malaya, Lai Te, was a double agent for the Japanese. However, he never betrayed Chapman.
Chapman, despite his amazing story of survival, achieved little directly. Indirectly, he made a significant contribution to anti-Japanese resistance by training communist guerrillas. However, it was intended that, with this training, they would rise up against the Japanese in conjunction with a planned British invasion of Malaya. This was never realised with America's dropping of the atomic bombs and Japan's subsequent surrender.
What is particularly noteworthy about Chapman's exploits is his mental approach to danger and survival. Unlike many British soldiers who saw the jungle as hostile and who succumbed to diseases and died, Chapman regarded it as neutral - a territory whose assets such as flora and fauna he could use to survive and through which he could pass unseen, thus avoiding capture.
The lessons he had learnt in dangerous expeditions in the 1930s also taught him that survival depended upon having a positive approach to danger. This was to serve him in good stead when captured by the Japanese and Chinese bandits, as well as when he succumbed to a range of tropical diseases, particularly malaria from which he was to suffer frequent recurring bouts.
Chapman was given up for dead by British authorities until early 1945, when he and his companions were able to source batteries and a dynamo to power a radio and send signals to Colombo. The British were astonished to learn of his survival.
Radio communications facilitated not only the drop of essential supplies and personnel into the Malayan jungle, but also Chapman's escape from there. The British were especially eager to retrieve someone with first-hand experience of the Malayan situation who could brief them and help them formulate their plans.
One of the most exciting sections of Moynahan's book is the account of Chapman's hazardous journey to the coast and rendezvous with a British submarine in May 1945.
After the war, Freddy married and returned to teaching, an occupation he had practised briefly before the war. He became headmaster of a school in South Africa and died in tragic circumstances in 1971.
What strikes the reader constantly throughout the narrative is Chapman's initiative and courage. It is little wonder that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar for his wartime exploits.
Jungle Soldier is an absorbing account of the life of an extraordinary adventurer. It is well researched, being based partly on Chapman's own accounts in published works such as The Jungle is Neutral (1948) and also on other sources.