It being the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day, the actual end of WW2, and seeing a Piper play at our local Village Church, reminded me of my Uncle Stan, the Cockney Seaforth Highlander.
The only part of my immediate Family who fought outside of Europe and Africa in WW2 was my Uncle Stan. Stan was married to my Aunt Marie, one of my Mother’s elder Sisters.
When Uncle Stan first joined the army he was sent into a regular English regiment and spent some time in training, my Aunt Marie followed him, with baby Dennis, getting away from London and the Blitz, to the relative safety of Birmingham.
Marie told me the story of her living in Birmingham where she had to get a pram up three flights of stairs, and being surprised one day by an unexpected visitor. The visitor was her sister (my Mum) Peggy, who had been shipped off as an evacuee to Wales. Unfortunately the Welsh weren’t too keen on the Cockney children who turned up on their doorsteps at night, especially as that was the first night that the Germans decided to bomb the area, and the Welsh were convinced that the Cockney kids had brought the German Bombers with them!
Stan meanwhile was posted to an embarkation camp in Scotland to await shipment to a theatre of war. He told me that he was at the camp with nothing to do for so long that he eventually got bored with it, and when word reached him from Marie that his son Dennis was gravely ill. The Army wouldn’t give him leave to travel back to see them, as his regiment was due to be shipped overseas, so he decided to walk out of the camp and head back to the family. How he managed to do this without a pass for train travel is a story in itself, he brazened his way past Station Masters, Coppers, and Ticket Collectors, locked himself in the toilets to get away from the more diligent ones and at any sign of Military Police, and made it but back to see the family.
Stan spent a week or so with Marie and Dennis until the worst was over and Dennis was on the mend, and, not wishing to be charged with desertion and possibly shot, he travelled back up to the training Camp in Scotland, again without any form of military pass.
On arrival Uncle Stan reported to the Military Police on the gate to gain entrance, as if he had just popped out to the shops an hour before. Unfortunately for Stan his regiment had been shipped abroad in his absence, and he was down as absent without leave. The Military Police grabbed him and had him marched to the Commanding officer of the Camp explaining where Stan graciously explained that he had got bored and decided to take a trip home while the Army made up their bloody minds where they were going to post him. Privileged Middle Class authority figures, rarely appreciate healthy disrespect from Working Class people, so Uncle Stan’s candour obviously didn’t go down well. Stan was roundly berated and flung in the Glasshouse (Military Prison) where he remained for some time.
Stan said that life wasn’t so bad in the glasshouse, apart from the boredom, and he remembered, having washed and shaved, standing on his bunk to see out of the high window of his cell whilst drinking a mug of tea, seeing a Scots Highland Regiment being marched into the camp and forming up on the parade ground, ready for shipping to the far east. The story then goes that the Military Police Sergeants came in, and told Stan that because he had such nice legs they thought he would look good in a skirt, which they promptly provided in the form of a kilt and associated accoutrements of the Seaforth Highlanders.
Dressed like that, within a day he was shipped out with the two other prisoners he had shared the glasshouse with to the docks and onto a troop ship, probably HMS Cumberland bound for the East Indies to finish off the Japanese. To Stan’s delight he and his two acquaintances from the glasshouse were given the run of the ship for a full three days before the Highlanders were put aboard, and off the ship sailed for the Far East, with Uncle Stan the Cockney Highlander.
Whilst the ship was at sea the Americans dropped two Atom bombs on Japan, forcing the Japanese surrender. This meant that by the time Stan’s journey ended at the docks on the Island of Java, via the Middle East, Africa, and India, the Japanese had surrendered and the War was officially over.
The Highlanders were used to rearm the Japanese Units on Java and use them as Para Military Police Under British control. Initially protecting Dutch civilians from the growing Nationalist movement of the Indonesians. It must have been strange arriving to find Japanese soldiers bowing to the British Victors, and clearing a path through the locals to let the Highlanders get to their barracks.
Stan said that his time in Java was very enjoyable. The main war had finished, and the only trouble they had to deal with came from the communist insurgents, who having fought the Japanese for the Allies, now wanted their independence, but Java having been a Dutch Colony, the status of it after the war wasn’t clear, so faced with attacks from the communists, the British fully rearmed the Japanese to fight the insurgents on their behalf, to avoid the unnecessary loss of British lives. Stan spoke about this, and described walking down the street in Jakarta being passed by fully
armed Patrols of Japanese soldiers who would smartly salute any British Uniform they saw, no matter who was wearing it.
Because of the number of soldiers both British, American, and Japanese, that were being shipped home due to the official ending of the war, Java became a transit point for many such men, and this offered its own opportunities for a profit, the particular one that Stan was involved in consisted of disarming the Japanese soldiers who were due to be shipped home, keeping the swords, flags, and pistols of the officers in a big pile on the docks, then selling them to American soldiers being shipped home who were in need of a memento of their service for the folks back home in Poughkeepsie and Pasadena. The glamour of the purchase was probably added to by the person they were buying it from; Stan, turning up in a Highland Uniform on a captured Japanese Officer’s horse.
Stan did a roaring trade in this, and the only time he almost fell foul, was when he and a friend, or perhaps more appropriately an “accomplice”, kept a couple of automatic pistols and decided to try them out in the Jungle. To get there they simple hotwired one of the many abandoned cars left by the Dutch when they fled the colony, and drove it up into the hills. Once well away from the main army bases they blasted away merrily at foliage and, livestock and wildlife, no doubt considerably reducing the biodiversity in that particular area of jungle, then, having run out of ammunition, they got back in the car and proceeded to drive back to Jakarta. On their way down the hills they were met by a Patrol of British and Japanese soldiers bristling with arms and on high alert coming up the hill. It seemed that a look out post had reported hearing a ferocious gun battle raging in the hills, and had called for reinforcements to help stop the surprise communist advance on Jakarta. It looked like Stan and his mate had opened up a whole new front on their own. The officer in charge of the Patrol pulled them over and asked them if they had witnessed the battle, not wishing to risk another term in the glasshouse Stan said that they had come under heavy fire, and had held out for as long as they could, but once they had run out of ammunition, they had been forced to commandeer a car, and make a strategic withdrawal, they had done what they could, but now was up to the reinforcements to push back the communist tide as they needed to report back to HQ.
No doubt there is the descendant of a British Officer somewhere writing up his father’s or grandfather’s memoirs of an encounter with two brave Tommies who held off the Red Tide long enough to save Jakarta from falling into communist hands, but refused to take credit, and headed off as mysteriously as they appeared out of the Jungle in a battered 1930s Mercedes.
There were many other opportunities for a profit, and Stan told stories of his unit “liberating” the contents of a factory, stripping out anything that wasn’t nailed down, the more stupid as he put it, braking into cash boxes and ending up with worthless pre-war Dutch Guilders, whilst he relieved the Boardroom of a set of rare and valuable framed stamps which were hanging on the wall. He somehow managed to get these shipped home in an innocuous looking parcel, but he believed that someone at home intercepted them before he got back and sold them on the black market so he never received the proceeds. However compared to some of the antics of the occupying allied forces, Stan’s shenanigans were fairly lightweight.
Stan told me the story of a company of Royal Engineers, who, lead by their officer, raided the Central Bank in Jakarta, breaking into its vault with explosives, and relieving it of a truckload of Gold and Gems left there by the Japanese when they stripped the Dutch colonists of their possessions. The Engineers drove the loot into the jungle to a prearranged location, where a hole had been expertly excavated, and the loot was buried there. The story
went that some years later after the war, in a pre-arranged meeting, the leaders of the gang travelled back to the spot to excavate their ill gotten gains. What happened next he didn’t know. We can only speculate that they either got captured by the authorities and ended up in a military prison, or, hopefully, made off with their loot and lived the life of Riley in the South China Seas.
According to a report in the Guardian Newspaper in 1999 discussing the past conflict in Indonesia:
“When the Seaforth Highlanders set off for Jakarta docks in November, 1946, after months of coping with the Indonesian liberation movement on behalf of the absent Dutch, they passed contingents of troops just in from Holland. With one accord, the British soldiers raised clenched fists and shouted “Merdeka!”(“Freedom!”).
Liberation salute and slogan were more than just a joke at Dutch expense. They were a recognition by men of what was still an imperial army that empire was not going to long survive in the Indies – something which the young Dutchmen in the lorries going the other way did not yet understand.”
Personally I think this is an over analysis of the situation, without a doubt this was the Tommies “taking the piss” real gallows humour aimed towards the fresh faced Dutch boys about to walk into a Lions Den that the Seaforth’s had survived and were now leaving behind. I can imagine Stan and his mates with their fists in the air shouting “Merdeka!” and then bursting into laughter afterwards saying “Bugger THAT for a game of soldiers!”.
Big thanks to my Cousin Rob Hunt for so many brilliant pictures.