Wednesday 3 December 2014

Freddy Spencer Chapman, by Y S Lee

Now that I’ve wrapped up the Mary Quinn Mysteries, my quartet of novels set in Victorian London, I’ve begun researching a new book. This one’s set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) during the Second World War and it’s been a bracing change. One of my favourite historical figures so far is that of Freddy Spencer Chapman. I’d never heard of him before, and now I can’t stop talking about him or recommending his memoir to everybody I meet.

In late 1941, the English naturalist, mountaineer, teacher, explorer, and writer Freddy Spencer Chapman was sent to the British colony of Singapore. Freddy (I’m following the example of his biographer, Brian Moynahan, in calling him so familiarly) was a veteran of two polar geographical expeditions and a British mission to Tibet. Now, in wartime, Freddy taught “fieldcraft” (how to read tracks, navigate by the stars, shelter, find food, and generally survive in the wilderness) to Allied soldiers, first in Switzerland and then in Australia. With British concern mounting about Japanese aggression in southeast Asia, Freddy was the obvious choice to help lead a new Special Training School, 101 STS, in Singapore.

As sometimes happens, the British grossly miscalculated their defense against the Japanese Imperial Army, which conquered the entire archipelago in a matter of weeks. 101 STS was abandoned and the British, soldiers and civilians alike, fled the colony. As also sometimes happens, Freddy and two companions, Sergeant John Sartin and civilian volunteer Bill Harvey, got cut off behind enemy lines and left behind.

For one “mad fortnight”, Freddy, Sartin and Harvey blew up railway bridges, destroyed Japanese military vehicles, severed telegraph lines, and killed roughly 500 Japanese soldiers. According to biographer Moynahan, “the Japanese deployed a regiment to search for what they believed was a squad of 200 Australian commandos”. Sartin and Harvey were both captured; Sartin survived the war in a Japanese POW camp, while Harvey was decapitated for attempting to escape.

At home in England, Freddy was reported “missing believed killed”, until the day in 1945 when he swam out to a submarine off the coast of Malaya and, as Moynahan says, “came back from the dead”. In fact, for three years, Freddy survived in the jungle, training Communist guerrillas who resisted the Japanese occupation and later helping to plan the British attack on Malaya. His exploits sound like the purest fiction, an irresistible, real-life, Boy’s Own Adventure.

Without detracting from these astonishing accomplishments – Freddy deserves Field Marshal Wavell’s praise as “the jungle Lawrence” – I’d like to redress a consistent inaccuracy that seems to permeate the conversation around Freddy. He’s frequently described as a “one-man army”, with the suggestion that he was entirely alone in the tropical jungle. As the last few paragraphs show, this is inaccurate. And from a practical perspective, such a feat would be superhuman. Yet even Moynahan, at one point, succumbs to the sole-superhero rhetoric.

In truth, Freddy was sheltered, fed, supplied, doctored, protected, guided through the jungle, and fêted by hundreds of Communist guerrillas, and indirectly supported by tens of thousands of local civilians who quietly resisted the Japanese occupation. It’s this part of the story – the less glamorous, unfilmic aspect - that’s sometimes glossed over. Hearteningly, this isn’t something in which Freddy participated.

When he returned to England, Freddy published The Jungle is Neutral, a memoir of his time in wartime Malaya. He explains the title in this way: "the jungle is neutral. It provides any amount of fresh water, and unlimited cover for friend as well as foe - an armed neutrality, if you like, but neutrality nonetheless. It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive". In this memoir, Freddy writes extensively about his time with the guerrillas, including brief portraits of his closest friends among them. The Jungle is Neutral might be my favourite work of nonfiction, ever, and much of this is because I really hadn’t expected to like Freddy so much.

Before reading it, I was braced for a man of his generation (born 1907): a social snob, an unself-conscious racist, an unapologetic colonialist. This isn’t the case at all. Freddy was immensely curious about the world, entirely willing to judge people on their individual merits and flaws, and endearingly passionate about food, even while suffering from bullet wounds, pneumonia, chronic malaria, ulcerated legs, blackwater fever, tick typhus, dysentery, and I-don’t-know-how-many-other ailments. Here’s how terrific this memoir is: while reading it, I followed my partner all around the house, subjecting him to excerpts. Another measure of how much I love it: before I was halfway through, I was already mourning the fact that it must end.

I joke about Freddy as my historical boyfriend, but I do think of him as singular and special in most ways. Fieldcraft and wartime exploits aside, he remained open to new experiences, new people, new ideas. He clearly valued intelligence, marrying a woman, Faith Townson, who worked for the Special Operations Executive, and whose wartime records remained sealed until this year. And it doesn’t hurt that he was excessively handsome! (Many images of Freddy remain under copyright, but click here for some examples.) For a vivid and pulse-quickening experience of a lesser-known facet of World War II, I couldn’t recommend more highly The Jungle is Neutral.


Carol Drinkwater said...

You have sold it to me. He is indeed handsome and I will be fascinated to read this book. Ironic that he was befriended by communists who, as an ideology, became the enemy of the West. Too soon for you to tell us anything about your new book???

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this - Freddy is now on my to-pursue list!

Clare Mulley said...

Fascinating, and I like the sound of Faith Townson too!

Lydia Syson said...

Clearly a man to fall in love with…in fact, almost impossible not to.

Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds amazing! Will head for the book... it's lovely, isn't it, that research and discovery phase!

Y S Lee said...

Thanks, all. Freddy is indeed irresistible! Carol, I've been tussling with this book for some time and it's currently in its 4th incarnation - ARGH. I'd love to talk about it publicly but need to feel that I'm in charge, first. Clare, I'm very curious about Faith Townson, too, and eagerly awaiting the digitisation of her file. If you're curious, she's listed in the National Archives as Faith Mary Chapman née Townson.

Y S Lee said...

Oh! Carol, I mean to say about Communism: Freddy's guerrilla friends included Chin Peng, future leader of the Malayan Communist Party. After the war, Chin was offered an MBE for his wartime services - an offer that was rescinded after Chin became the leader of the Malayan anti-colonial movement. Despite their ideological differences, Freddy and Chin liked and respected each other enormously.

Helena said...

He sounds fascinating! Do you recommend the biography too?

Helena said...

I've reserved both books at my library. Which do think I should read first, the biography or the auto-biography?