British Empire Books

Jungle Soldier: The True Story of Freddie Spencer Chapman

AuthorBrian Moynahan
ISBN No.1849160767

Brian Moynahan recounts the true-life story of Freddie Spencer Chapman. Freddie's life was certainly larger than life. He was one of the few British soldiers who spent almost his entire war deep behind enemy lines. These were not any old enemy lines, but the jungles of Malaya. Freddie recounted his tale in The Jungle is Neutral but Brian Moynahan examines his account more carefully and teases out some of the inaccuracies and those parts of the story which could not be revealed at the time due to Malaya sliding into the Emergency with many of the key players from Freddie's life still active. This account is therefore a much fuller narrative than Freddie's own but one that also treats his life as a whole and so puts much more context into Freddie's more famous war exloits.

To all intents and purposes, Freddie grew up as an orphan in a far from privileged background. His love of natural history and the outdoors manifested itself from the very earliest stages of his life. His parents had left just enough for money for Freddie to be privately educated but not much more than that. His intellect and interests did attract attention and he made it to Cambridge to study Botany. This would prove to be an invaluable addition to his skill-set later in life as he was forced for months on end to live off the land in the jungles of Asia.

His boy's own life started in a land which could hardly have been more different from Malaya. He became something of an Arctic explorer in the frozen north of Canada and Greenland. The desolate landscapes also helped Freddie's later life when he learned to navigate in the featureless wastes by the stars. This skill would also play a crucial role in saving his life in the disorientating jungles of South-East Asia. He also learned how to understand his limitations and how to manage risk effectively. This was made painfully aware to him when one of his team members was killed whilst out hunting solo in a kayak. Freddie located the kayak and the equipment but there was no sign of his colleague.

Brian Moynahan makes the interesting comparison of Freddie's achievements in World War Two with Lawrence of Arabia's in World War One. The author believes that Freddie's should eclipse Lawrence's in their epic scale and the depth of difficulty that he found himself having to deal with and yet he acknowledges that Freddie did not have the same literary skills or depth of introspection that Lawrence evidently exhibited. Having read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the The Jungle is Neutral I understand his point. Lawrence undoubtedly had the ability to move beyond mere narrative to a book that was filled with philosophical underpinnings and all elegantly expressed. Had Freddie had Lawrence's flair for writing, he may well have joined that pantheon. As it was, Freddie's life was still fascinating and very much a story of the tale end of Empire.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya was without doubt the defining moment of Freddie's life. His brief had been to establish behind the lines groups to disrupt any Japanese invasion but the suddenness of the invasion followed by the speed of their advance threw most British plans into disarray. Undaunted and with most of his personnel withdrawn from under his feet, Freddie managed to get get himself established with explosives, with sympathetic Chinese support and two men under his command. These three were able to cause chaos in the rear lines of the Japanese advance during a 'mad fortnight' of blowing bridges, derailing trains and ambushing trucks. In many ways, Freddie's doctrine of assymetrical warfare pre-saged the post-war decolonisation struggles and Cold War proxy wars. He also further demonstrated the lamentable leadership of the British who pulled Freddie's personnel in a moment of loss of confidence and desperation as the Japanese swept all before it. Had Freddie commanded serious numbers of soldiers, his achievements would have been far more significant. As it was, he tied down large numbers of soldiers but the Japanese were replacing their losses in equipment faster than Freddie could destroy it by capturing the huge quantities of British and Australian supplies and equipment.

The Fall of Singapore sounded the death knell for Freddie's mobile wrecking unit. He had to change from offensively taking on the Japanese to defensively staying alive. His journeys through the jungle tell a litany of suffering from disease, hunger and the inhospitable terrain. He clearly relied on the Chinese population who had their own reasons to detest the Japanese occupation. The Chinese understood perfectly well what the Asian co-prosperity zone meant for non-Japanese subjects. Freddie managed to find a new role for himself in training Chinese Communists to fight the Japanese. Ironically, most of this training would later be put to use against the British in the Malayan Emergency. For the time being though, the Communists and the British hatched a marriage of convenience as both understood that the defeat of the Japanese was their primary objective. The dropping of Atomic Bombs in 1945 would make these plans moot, but it was certainly anticipated that the British might have to invade Malaya to clear the peninsular. They were fortuante to not have to do so although Freddie was convinced that it was necessary to restore British prestige in the region. Freddie was full of admiration for the Chinese and certainly would not have survived the war without their help. It was interesting to read how the Chinese in particular rejoiced at the defeat of the Japanese and how they welcomed the return of the British. This was the calm before the new storm that would turn the Communist Chinese at least against the returning imperialists.

The post-war period of his life was instructive of the changing nature of Empire. Freddie did not return to Malaya maybe because he could not bare the thought of having to fight his previous friends and students. His health had certainly been affected by the four years of living in the jungle on the run. He spent some time in South Africa but left as that country drifted towards Apartheid. Presciently, he understood the direction that the country was taking and made parallels with the way pre-war Germany prepared its population for the horrors of war and racial persecution. Freddie was no racist and did much to try and bring the races together. He was the kind of person who judged a person on his merits, no more - no less. It was this liberal view of humanity that was playing an increasingly important role in adjusting Britain's imperial vision for itself. His return to Britain to work in various educational establishments did little to inspire Freddie. He obviously felt a disconnect in his pre-war vision of service and duty from the new era of developing individualism and personal freedom. He may have had some liberal ideas but he was always a patriot first and a liberal second. He found some solace in helping young people found the wilderness themselves by becoming a director of the Outward Bound organisation. But it was his declining health that concerned him the most. For Freddie it represented more than just the natural aging process but a loss of his raison d'etre. He was someone who lived for the outdoors and the natural world. If he could not participate in that then he did not wish to continue living. Sadly, he committed suicide rather than burden his wife and family with having to nurse him in old age.

By any standards, Freddie had a remarkable life. Brian Moynahan has done much to recount this life. He is obviously sympathetic to his subject and is broadly hagiographic. He doesn't really challenge Freddie's achievements and I wish that he spent more time on examining Freddie's post-war experiences. They are certainly covered but only briefly. You don't get much emotional depth or analysis of Freddie. He appears a two dimensional character who achieved remarkable things which is perhaps what he was. It is interesting that the author criticises Freddie for a lack of introspection but then does not fully make up for Freddie's ommission. Having said that, these are minor criticisms of what was a fascinating life. You get a feel for why The British Empire imploded in the jungles of South East Asia and how it never fully recovered its swagger and position despite the best efforts of Freddie. The World and the Empire was changing but there were not enough Freddies in the Jungle to stop this flow of history.

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by Stephen Luscombe