VJ Day veterans remember their war: ‘We knew what we were doing was vital’

August 16th, 2015

But following the Japanese surrender, Mr Giddings was dispatched to assist the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia, then facing a nationalist insurgency for independence.

Back in 1940, at the start of it all, he had lied in order to do his bit. Aged 17, Mr Giddings headed to his nearest RAF recruitment station, in Gloucester, and told them he was 18 – allowing him to sign up. He said: “ After the Battle of Britain I thought ‘I’ve got to get in there, the Air Force needs me.’”

Following basic training in Skegness the teenager was among the first to put his name down when the call came for volunteers for overseas duty and in December 1941 he was posted to Air Headquarters Singapore.

He was lucky not to be captured before his war had even begun. On its way to Singapore his ship fortuitously broke down and when the rest of the convoy – which had sailed ahead to the British colony – was captured by the Japanese, it managed to make its way to Burma instead.

Here Mr Giddings fought with 17 Squadron, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter. Overwhelmed by the Japanese in 1942, British forces retreated to India, where Mr Giddings took part in the four-month long defence of Agatala.

But his most dangerous mission was yet to come. In 1944 he signed up for “volunteers for hazardous duty” and found himself pitched into the battle of Kohima, north east India, where the Japanese were attempting to capture a key ridge held by British and Indian troops.

It was the task of Mr Giddings and his fellow volunteers to keep the defenders supplied, something they managed to do until the Japanese retreated on June 22 that year.

He rejoined 17 Squadron, this time flying Spitfires, and took part in the battle of Mandalay, which saw the Japanese overwhelmed by Allied forces – thanks in part to British supremacy in the air.

The battle, which raged from January to March 1945, proved a turning point in the war in the Far East and Mr Giddings and his squadron were subsequently ordered to take part in the recapture of Singapore, which had fallen to the Japanese in ignominious circumstances three years earlier.

By the time the men got to Singapore however, the Americans had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly after the Japanese surrendered, bringing the war to an end, and Mr Giddings and his comrades were met with no opposition.

With the war over Mr Giddings was given two weeks leave and hitchhiked back to Britain, only to be sent back to the far east to help Dutch forces fight what was ultimately a losing battle against Indonesian independence. It was, the 92-year-old now says, “almost as bad as Burma”.

After leaving the RAF in 1947 Mr Giddings, who joined fellow veterans in Saturday’s VJ parade along Whitehall, worked in engineering and insurance, while also serving as a civilian volunteer in the Royal Observer Corps as part of Britain’s Cold War defences. He went on to become Mayor of Banbury and is now the chairman of the Burma Star Association. In 2003 he was made an MBE for his services to the association.


Dan Chapman, 92

Dan Chapman, aged 21 and in Wivenhoe on Friday (Martin Rose)

Dan Chapman was among thousands of British troops at sea preparing to invade Malaysia when he heard it was all over.

As the men of his 26th Indian Division braced themselves for the bitter fighting that would follow Operation Zipper’s imminent seaborne assault on Port Swettenham, south west of Kuala Lumpur, word spread that Japan had surrendered.

Mr Chapman, now 92, said: “This time 70 years ago we were waiting on board ship to land against the Japanese in Malaya. We were about to do the landing when the atom bomb was dropped and Japan surrendered. We were saved from invading at the critical last minute, saving many Japanese and Indian Army lives. I felt somewhat relived, to put it mildly. I think we were all pleased that it was over.”

With the planned invasion averted, the 26th Indian Division was diverted to Indonesia to take the surrender of the Japanese in Sumatra.

“We weren’t sure whether we were going to be met by bullets or surrender, so we were a bit apprehensive,” said Mr Chapman. “But it went off all right and eventually all the Japanese surrendered and were sent back to Japan.”

But Mr Chapman’s war continued for another 12 months, as the 26th Indian Division took part in anti-insurgency operations on behalf of the Dutch colonial government. “My war just carried on,” he said.

Born and bred in Barking, east London, he had joined the British Army in September 1941, just before his 18th birthday, having already experienced the terror of the Blitz and served in the Local Defence Volunteers and Home Guard.

After a year in the Royal Corps of Signals and the Royal Army Service Corps he was transferred to the South Staffordshire Infantry Regiment and posted to Bangalore, where he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Garhwal Rifles, reaching the rank of Captain.

Mr Chapman, who was awarded the Burma Star and left the Army in 1947, went on to have three children and six grandchildren with Eileen, his wife of 65 years.

Seventy years on the retired bank manager joined other veterans at the Wivenhoe Branch of The Royal British Legion in remembering those who did not survive the war,

“I will mostly be thinking about lost comrades and some of the good times,” he said. “And just being alive.”


Gladys Wilkins, 92

Gladys Wilkins as a young woman and at her home in Redbridge on Friday (Julian Simmonds)

Women like Gladys Wilkins played a key role in the war – a role only recognised in recent years for its true worth alongside the exploits and bravery of the front line troops.

A Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) radio operator, first at Flowerdown, near Winchester, then in Columbo, Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – it was her job to intercept enemy massages and relay them back to Bletchley Park for decoding.

The Flowerdown intercepts allowed the RAF to bomb German U-boats whose signals had been overheard by operators such as Mrs Wilkins. When she was transferred to Columbo, in January 1944, the coded messages she intercepted from Japanese forces again provided priceless intelligence for the allies.

“We were able to pin point a lot of the things they were doing,” said Mrs Wilkins, now 92. “We knew that what we were doing in helping defeat the enemy was vital.”

Just how vital became only too clear when the war ended and freed allied prisoners of war began to arrive in Ceylon en route to their home countries. Mrs Wilkins and her colleagues were there to meet them at the quayside to try and help the men, emaciated from their pitiless ordeal, become acclimatised to liberty once again.

To this day the thought of the men’s skeletal features still reduces Mrs Wilkins to tears.

“We’d meet the POW ships coming back to Columbo and take the men for a coffee, just to try and make them feel normal again. Seeing them come down the gangway in the state they were in was terrible. I shall never forget that,” she said. “We didn’t want to upset them, so we didn’t mention things like the Blitz or what had happened at home.”

While returning to Britain by boat, in 1948, Mrs Wilkins met her future husband, Stanley, who had fought behind enemy lines with the Royal Marines Special Operations (385 Detachment), carrying out sabotage raids after being dropped by submarine or boat near Japanese occupied territory.

The couple, who went on to have three children, moved to south west England, where Mr Wilkins worked as a vet before joining Dorset police and rising to the rank of Chief Inspector. He died eight years ago.

Before joining Saturday’s VJ commemoration parade, organised with help of Royal British Legion, Mrs Wilkins, who now lives in Redbridge, east London, said: “I’m very proud of what my husband did, but I’m also proud of all the people who never came back. And I shall be wearing my medals with pride.”

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