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The Forgotten Highlander

 
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kinnethmont



Joined: 19 Dec 2006
Posts: 1675
Location: Aberdeenshire

PostPosted: Thu Apr 29, 2010 6:57 am    Post subject: The Forgotten Highlander Reply with quote

The story of Gordon Highlander, Alastair Urquhart, and the horrors he endured at the hands of the Japanese in captivity after the Fall of Singapore, revealed after 70 years.

An appraisal by Trevor Royle. The Observer, Sunday 14 March 2010


The fall of Singapore was the biggest British military disaster in modern times. At the beginning of 1942, Japanese forces cut a swathe through the Malayan peninsula before sweeping into the strategically important port. Unwilling to risk the massacre of civilians, British commanders flew the white flag and defeat was followed by humiliation. Not only had Singapore been considered impregnable, but the Japanese had been written off as racially inferior types who would be easily crushed.

For those who survived, it was the beginning of a season in hell. Among them was Alistair Urquhart, a young conscript soldier in 2nd Gordon Highlanders, one of the few British infantry battalions that had not faltered during the fierce fighting for the vital Singapore causeway. A lifetime after those disastrous events he is now aged 90 Urquhart has returned to his time as a soldier and the result is a riveting and frequently troubling account of what happens when an army accepts defeat.

In his opening chapters, Urquhart insists that the loss of Singapore was not just a terrible setback, it also marked the end of Britain's imperial pretensions in the far east. He had arrived in the garrison a year earlier and his eyes had been opened to the reality of colonial life in its heyday. Private soldiers were treated with the same casual contempt the British settlers reserved for the Malays and Chinese, and provided you were white and well-connected social life still went with a swing. Above all, no one ever dreamed that the Japanese would have the temerity to attack this invincible bulwark of British interests in southern Asia.

For the British and the blameless local population, it was a rude awakening. Urquhart provides chilling descriptions of the barbarities inflicted by the Japanese as they took control of the city. Marching into captivity in the notorious Changi prison, the men of the Gordons were confronted with "a thicket of severed Chinese heads speared on poles on both sides of the road." Broken bodies bore witness to massacres in which people had been machine-gunned at will. Every scene spoke of devastation.

For a time regimental discipline held, but all too quickly things fell apart. Much of Urquhart's story will be drearily familiar. His world became populated by monsters whose cartoon character nicknames would have raised a smile had they not been so horrific: the Black Prince, Dr Death, the Mad Mongrel, all sadistic guards devoid of pity or humanity.

From Changi, Urquhart was sent north to work as a slave labourer on the notorious Burma Road railway where conditions were even worse. His life narrowed down to a round of pain and deprivation. Food was in short supply, beatings were regular, illness afflicted even the strongest and death was ever present. In that hellhole, which included a stint working on the bridge on the river Kwai, where conditions were so unlike the film of the same name as to make comparisons laughable, Urquhart found strength and resolution from his inner self.

Whereas many men took solace in each other's company or survived by playing the system, Urquhart retreated into a dream world of music and songs. Before being called up he had enjoyed dancing and popular ballroom tunes populated his imagination. Often he was too weak to sing, but within his head he crooned the hits of earlier years when happiness was a foxtrot and a pretty girl in his arms.

Urquhart had more horrors to face. While being shipped to Japan, his rust-bucket transport was torpedoed by a US submarine. He survived the sinking,but hard labour in a coal mine near Nagasaki almost did for him, as did the atomic bomb that exploded on the city to end the war. Peace took him on a long journey home through the US, but happiness was elusive and as the narrative folds in upon itself, Urquhart's final chapters describe the torment he faced on demobilisation.

He returned to his native Aberdeen but found that he could not settle back into civilian life and repaid his family's many kindnesses with brutish hostility. Having lived within himself for so long, he could not embrace the old kindly world and spent his first months of freedom endlessly pacing the city streets, alone and fearful. Nightmares and flashbacks haunted him and would continue to do so throughout his life.

Today, thanks to the work of charities like Combat Stress, we know more about the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but in Urquhart's day veterans were just supposed to get on with their lives. This final section forms the cold heart of the story, but it should be read by anyone who wants to understand the reality of what soldiers suffer as a result of frontline service. There will be many other Urquharts in today's Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for the Gordon Highlanders, the regiment has long since disappeared but its reputation lives on and not just for its fighting but also its writing. Among those who wore the distinctive Gordon tartan were the poets Vernon Scannell and Alexander Scott and the novelists James Kennaway and George MacDonald Fraser. Now, with this powerful and thought-provoking memoir, Alistair Urquhart has fallen in beside them to join an elite band of first-rate soldier-writers.

Trevor Royle's books include Crimea and The Road to Bosworth Field
_________________
Jim

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

www.kinnethmont.co.uk


Last edited by kinnethmont on Thu Jun 24, 2010 6:48 am; edited 1 time in total
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anne park
Our first ever 2000 poster


Joined: 25 Sep 2007
Posts: 20867
Location: Aberdeen

PostPosted: Thu Apr 29, 2010 4:03 pm    Post subject: Alistair Urquhart Reply with quote

Born 1919 and is one of the very last surviving members of the Scottish regiment The Gordon Highlanders, who was captured in Singapore.
He lives in Scotland, where he teaches computer skills to OAPs.
An amazing man. Bless him.
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gourdongirl



Joined: 10 Oct 2008
Posts: 1200
Location: Musselburgh Scotland

PostPosted: Fri Apr 30, 2010 2:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

My Great-Uncle, James Alexander Malcolm (native of Stonehaven) was also in the 2nd Bn Gordon Highlanders and he was also taken prisoner in 1942. Unfortunately he surcummed to the treatment he received at the hands of the Japanese and died on 25th Nov 1944, aged 25. He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial.

Here is his CWGC entry.
MALCOLM, JAMES ALEXANDER
Initials: J A
Nationality: United Kingdom
Rank: Private
Regiment/Service: Gordon Highlanders
Unit Text: 2nd Bn.
Age: 25
Date of Death: 25/11/1944
Service No: 2878815
Additional information: Son of Robert and Maggie Jane Malcolm, of Stonehaven, Kincardineshire.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Column 80.
Memorial: SINGAPORE MEMORIAL
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DelBoy



Joined: 12 Jul 2007
Posts: 4858
Location: The County of Angus

PostPosted: Fri Apr 30, 2010 3:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Mr Urquhart lives just down the road from me in Broughty Ferry.

Gourdongirl have you researched your great-uncles war?
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gourdongirl



Joined: 10 Oct 2008
Posts: 1200
Location: Musselburgh Scotland

PostPosted: Thu Dec 16, 2010 1:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

DelBoy wrote:
Mr Urquhart lives just down the road from me in Broughty Ferry.

Gourdongirl have you researched your great-uncles war?


No I haven't, but I would love to. I have just finished reading Alistair Urquhart's book, which I found very harrowing. Its a wonder anyone actually came home from a Japanese POW camp. I would love to meet this gentleman as he is an inspiration.
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kinnethmont



Joined: 19 Dec 2006
Posts: 1675
Location: Aberdeenshire

PostPosted: Sat Sep 03, 2011 9:37 pm    Post subject: The Forgotten Highlander Reply with quote

A documentary film in which Alastair relates his wartime experiences at the hands of the Japanese is on Channel Five on Tuesday night at 20.00.


Revealed... - World War II's Luckiest Man

Ninety-one-year-old Alistair Urquhart reveals for the first time the astonishing story of how he survived World War II.
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Jim

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

www.kinnethmont.co.uk
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DelBoy



Joined: 12 Jul 2007
Posts: 4858
Location: The County of Angus

PostPosted: Sun Sep 04, 2011 2:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'll certainly be catching that programme. Hopefully it'll do something to educate more people about the forgotten war in the far east during WW2.

Derek.
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Jim



Joined: 30 May 2008
Posts: 197

PostPosted: Sun Apr 01, 2012 11:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I had the chance to meet and hear him in Glasgow this afternoon. Don't pass up the chance if you get it.
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DelBoy



Joined: 12 Jul 2007
Posts: 4858
Location: The County of Angus

PostPosted: Mon Apr 02, 2012 1:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Jim,

I was lucky enough to hear him talk in Kirriemuir in October. People came from all over Angus, I think I was among the youngest half dozen (at 33) of around a hundred people.

Derek.
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