E.S. Turner shocks the sensitive

E.S. Turner

  • Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma by George MacDonald Fraser
    Harvill, 255 pp, £16.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 00 272660 2
  • Tyrants and Mountains: A Reckless Life by Denis Hills
    Murray, 262 pp, £19.95, June 1992, ISBN 0 7195 4640 0

The chronicler of that glorious cad Flashman, last encountered as General Sir Harry Flashman VC, was himself a man at arms. As a one-striper in General Slim’s 14th Army George MacDonald Fraser took part in ‘the last great battle in the last great war’, a showdown which was also ‘the final echo of Kipling’s world’. More specifically, it was the struggle for Meiktila and Pyawbwe on the Rangoon road which settled Japan’s hash in Burma. The author, too young to vote in the 1945 Election, was not too young to lead older men into action (‘the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks’). He was expected to kill Japanese in hand-to-hand fighting, whereas this reviewer, by the luck of the draw, was expected only to kill Germans at five or six miles range in the stratosphere. Fraser’s mates were called on to ponder such ethical problems as: does one instantly shoot Japanese found asleep in a hut, or does one wake them up first? For the record, they took the view that it did not greatly matter, but it wasn’t really right to shoot sleeping men. Along the way they learned that the problem with bayoneting an enemy was that the bayonet often bent and even when it didn’t it could be hard to pull out (a batman explained to his officer that ‘the way to free a bayonet is to fire a shot into the body. The theory is that it lets in air, or releases pressure on the blade, or something’).

It was that kind of war. Fifty years ago, men of Fraser’s generation just got on with it, and were lucky to do so undistracted by oafs with microphones asking: ‘Are you scared?’ It is with enormous pleasure that one reads Fraser’s repeated tirades against the ‘disgusting’ and ‘nauseating’ inquisitions to which media reporters subject modern fighting men. This has needed saying ever since the Falklands War, and indeed long before that. There are many questions which a fighting man may reasonably be asked, but ‘Are you scared?’ is not one of them.

Fifty years on, we have a public which, as Fraser says, is all too ready to shape its behaviour to the media’s demands. The ‘Are you scared?’ brigade does not hesitate to needle the high commanders themselves. Fraser cites the well-remembered case in which a general was induced to ‘agonise publicly about the fears and soul-searchings of command’. Slim and Montgomery and MacArthur had these qualms too, ‘but they would rather have been shot than admit it’.

Fraser hammers away at the fashionable thinking which attempts to invest the past with enfeebled new attitudes: ‘it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of “counselling”; that soldiers will suffer from “post-battle traumatic stress” and need psychiatric help.’ How then, asks Fraser, did Londoners survive the Blitz without the aid of grief counsellors? How did the servicemen of the Forties return successfully to civilian life without brain-washing? All of which has led to the sick farce of a public which now expects to be comforted, and then rewarded in cash, if it sees something nasty, like a stadium disaster, on television. No doubt Fraser will be told that he is overcompensating for having made a fortune out of that randy poltroon of a Flashman; that advanced years have brought out the Blimp in him; that the stiff upper lip he so greatly values has been the cause of England’s undoing; and that we should all be grateful to television for showing us what war is really about (currently, it is all about wild men firing guns aimlessly round corners). It used to be said that the British soldier could stand up to anything but the War Office. For War Office, must we substitute television?

And so to Nine Section, the men whom Lance-Corporal Fraser led in battle. They were a rare bunch of old sweats, hard-swearing, hard-moaning, hard-mocking, as thrawn as they come; and being simple souls they merely felt lucky, not guilty, to survive when their mates were killed. Their general had told them that 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division, to which they belonged, was to be the anvil on which Fifth Division would hammer the Japanese to destruction, and in bad moments that was always good for a laugh or two. They knew that, in Fraser’s words, they had drawn ‘the worst ticket in the lottery of active service’. Burma had everything against it – a desperate enemy, heat, monsoon rains, tropical diseases, dacoits (and yet, miraculously, the mail from home arrived in four or five days). As a Scot, Fraser was expected by his mates to be ‘a wild man, a head case’, and this helped him in the challenge of command. He had plenty of time to reflect that if he had worked harder at Lower Latin he could have been at university instead. He had failed to get into an officer-training unit and had lost his lance-corporal’s stripe three times, but at 19 he had the chance to try for a commission again if he led his section successfully.

Fraser will shock the sensitive with his talk of duty, loyalty and honour, these being the ties which bound him to his men. He does not sneer at his superiors and credits the remote generals with knowing exactly what they were doing (and they did). He does not even moan about the food; his praise of Maconochie’s stew is good enough to be used in a commercial and he is an ardent admirer of hard tack. As a Scot he goes out of his way to praise his men for their Englishness (his skilful rendering of their Cumbrian speech does much to soften all the effing and blinding). He even has kind words for the much-reviled film Objective Burma, in which Errol Flynn was supposed to have conquered Burma single-handed.Fraser thought it an above-average war film. As for the Japanese, he does not disguise his hatred, even at this stage. In World War One the enemy was described as ‘Jerry’ or ‘the Boche’ or ‘the Hun’, but Fraser describes his foe, tout court, without any definite article, as ‘Jap’. Chapter One begins, ‘The first time I smelt Jap ...’ and later we read of ‘bumping Jap’, ‘smashing Jap’ and so on. This again is likely to annoy many; more particularly, perhaps, those who feel, but rarely say, that our infantrymen should have gone on bumping Jap in one territory after another, year after year, rather than drop the Bomb.

If Fraser’s grandsons should enquire, as grandsons do, how many men he killed in the war, he can start by referring them to pages 83, 84 and 86; also to the account of his spirited display with a Piat anti-tank gun against Japanese river craft (the captain at whose bidding he performed this feat is a brilliantly evoked military eccentric, an apparent nutcase ripe for inclusion in a Flashman novel). His grandsons may also care to see how often he was within an ace, as so many were, of opening fire on friendly troops (Gurkhas look all too like Japanese in a bad light): that was one of the worst hazards in this last of the great set-piece battles. As a re-creation of old-fashioned warfare, illustrating what it really means to be one of a forward element engaged in winkling out and mopping up, this book is a crackling performance, livened by fierce comedy and enriched by anger.

Denis Hills, the ‘reckless’ author of Tyrants and Mountains, is the man who in 1975 was rescued from Idi Amin’s death squads by Mr James Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary, who flew to Uganda for that purpose. As a serving officer in World War Two and its immediate aftermath, Hills himself exercised what amounted to the power of life or death over thousands of persons who had ended the war on the wrong side. Which, one may wonder, is the more congenial role in war: to be issued with a bayonet for sticking in people’s guts, or to be handed a nominal roll and invited to tick the names of those who are to be surrendered to a bloodthirsty tyrant? For various reasons, Denis Hills qualified for the latter task: it was a time when more fortunate officers, extracted from then regiments, were assigned to running railway meal halts, or conducting provincial editors round the ruins of Germany, or going through the motions of OC Theatre Tickets Pool, London. That, once again, is the sort of war it was.

Hills’s fast-paced autobiography tells how the outbreak of hostilities found him teaching in Poland, whence he escaped to join the British Council circus in Bucharest made famous by Olivia Manning (he even said ‘What ho!’ three times in Reggie Turner’s ineffable Shakespeare production). Detaching himself to Egypt, he joined the Army and was commissioned on the General List. So began an often convivial wartime career as liaison officer with the Poles, with whom he served in North Africa and Iraq and at Monte Cassino. The hard part was still to come. In 1945 he escorted a shipment of well-fed and well-clothed Turkomans from their prisoner-of-war enclave at Taranto to Odessa, for the attention of Stalin; they had served, for good or bad reasons, with the Wehrmacht, but were expecting to be amnestied. Not so. ‘We were unwelcome,’ he writes. ‘We had succoured and cosseted a shipload of treacherous Muslim trash.’ He watched the ominously sour reception, took the hint and resolved to bend the rules next time. (It was the eve of the notorious Cossack handover in Carinthia.) Hills was able to cheat the Russians out of a prize haul in the shape of the Ukrainian Galicia Division, which had supported Germany as an ally against Bolshevism: these he classified as Polish citizens from Polish Galicia. Many years later he was to be interviewed for a BBC television programme, in which it was argued, with full benefit of hindsight, that the British had erred in not screening the Ukrainian Division for war criminals. At Riccione, in another clearance of men on Stalin’s wanted list, he invented a non-repatriable category of para-military and, ‘by patient wangling, like a shopkeeper cooking his books’, was able to cut the original list of ‘sacrificial goats’ from 500 to 180. Those he had been unable to spare had to make the best of his assurance: ‘You are the sacrifice. The others will now be safe.’ Allied Headquarters resented all the delays and revisions; the military in general had little time for turncoats. Hills did not enjoy deceiving his superiors as much as he relished cheating Stalin. ‘Why had I done the job at all?’ he writes. ‘I had the authority and was in a better position than others to contrive a minimum sacrifice.’

Perhaps Hills’s stickiest decision was when he allowed the SS Fede laden with Polish-Jewish illegal refugees to sail from La Spezia for Palestine, in the teeth of the Royal Navy blockade. ‘Militarily my decision to help the Jews was wrong. But army regulations do not provide for every situation. I had wanted to extinguish a small glow of hatred before it grew into a flame.’ He had no instinctive sympathy with the hunger-striking immigrants, who had broken all the rules in the book, and whose compatriots were ambushing British soldiers in Palestine. Other officers thought him a maverick who had exceeded his brief. His reward from those he helped has been to have his part misrepresented.

Luckily, Hills had never been burdened by an exaggerated respect for regulations (he had been sent down from Oxford). He was “court-martialled three times (compare George MacDonald Fraser’s three ‘bustings’ from lance-corporal) for offences which could he classified as horseplay, and at one headquarters alter another he would be told that he was a hard man for whom to find a niche. After demobilisation he continued to live dangerously, as in the Uganda affair, where his offence was to describe Amin in a book as ‘a village tyrant’. Frontier posts from Rhodesia to Poland kept files on this compulsive wanderer, but he was not an easy man to turn away, or expel. In Uganda, when he went back, the High Commission mildly observed that he must be a glutton for punishment. Always he seemed to find friends at the right time and was able to work along with all manner of people. His restlessness was prodigious; he cycled to the North Cape and he climbed mountains in Asia. Sometimes he had the benefit of publishers’ advances; at other times he simply turned schoolmaster on the spot. At a Nairobi crammer’s he was willing to teach Chaucer, Shakespeare and Jane Eyre, but knew where to draw the line: ‘No one could force me to teach Look back in anger or Bradbury’s trifling The History Man to African students.’ A reviewer quoted on the jacket says of Hills. ‘He will probably end up in a cooking pot,’ but he seems to have ended up in a bed-sitter in Twickenham. Here he has enjoyed a late burst of literary life, in the Spectator and elsewhere; perhaps now his urge for practical joking has abated. The times do not produce many adventurers like Denis Hills and few adventurers write so well.