WWII in Singapore media

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WWII in Singapore media

Postby alderaanian » 30 Aug 2018, 01:51

I was wondering whether to share this under the "Surviving Few" thread, but as this and other articles by local writers are quite Singapore-specific in their slant, I have started a new thread for the relevant articles from this part of the world, as WWII pilots have been featured in a number of local media articles recently.

Sharing this evocative article that appeared in our local newspaper in which the chairman of the National Archives Advisory Committee, Singapore, shares about his personal encounter with Geoffrey Wellum. The text of the article is behind a paywall so I have typed it out from my hard copy of the papers!

https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/th ... w-above-us

"The Truly Great who flew above us"
The Straits Times, on 19 Aug 2018.

Shashi Jayakumar for the Sunday Times

A half-remembered snatch of poetry has in recent weeks been drifting in and out of my mind, and with it has come a dull ache - a sort of numbness and sadness combined. It is I know the first line of a piece by the late, great British poet Stephen Spender. It goes like this: "I think continually of those who were truly great."

Perhaps the sadness has something to do with the fact that in the July just gone, three extraordinary individuals from a bygone era - the Battle of Britain - have left us.

Tom "Ginger" Neil, aged 97, who flew more than 140 missions and shot down 14 enemy planes. Mary Ellis, who died aged 101, flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary, delivering more than 400 Spitfires to the front-line airfields. And finally, Geoffrey "Boy" Wellum, 96, like Tom Neil holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, who was the youngest Spitfire pilot (18 when he joined the Royal Air Force in August 1939) to fight in World War II.

Geoffrey Wellum I knew. He published his memoir First Light, in 2002, at the age of 82. He had completed the manuscript decades before, when his life had been at something of a low ebb, to convince himself that he had been worth something once. An intrepid researcher and historian read it and insisted that it had to be published.

The result is a riveting personal history and one of the finest accounts of war in the air that you are ever likely to read.

In fact, so taken was I by his memoir when I read it in early 2013 that it changed the course of our family holiday that year. I felt that I had to meet him, but a desperate scouring of online forums run by World War II aficionados turned up no leads. Finally, someone told me that he could quite often be found in the bar of the Mullion Cove Hotel, in Cornwall. In February 2013, therefore, I wrote to Geoffrey Wellum, cc the Glenbervie bar, Mullion Cove Hotel, Cornwall.

My short note said I had read his story and that the sacrifice he and his friends made meant something to me halfway across the world, separated by over a generation.

Imagine my surprise when I got a note back from him (he told me later he made an effort to reply to all letters), and then, an e-mail from his daughter informing me that he would be willing to meet me for lunch at the Mullion on such and such a date in June.

The rest of my time from April till June was spent doing some fast talking, persuading my wife that Mullion would be a wonderful adventure off the beaten track with our two very young daughters.

And so it was - a magical place next to the glinting Cornish sea - and I can see why Wellum found peace there in his golden years.

Wellum was a delight to talk to. Erect, dapper, a great conversationalist, and piercing eyes - eyes that had seen much - that held you. He was a man of appetites - we went through multiple gin and tonics, several glasses of merlot, a medium steak each, and dessert to boot. Conversation ranged from the intricacies of wartime fighter tactics, to contemporary politics, to how the world had gone generally to pot (and how, for that matter, the Colonies were in his view better off when they were colonies - I thought about arguing with him but then decided against it).

The Far East attracted Wellum and he said he wanted to go to Singapore - something he let on casually, but which he seems to have repeated nowhere else. We both shared a laugh - in the RAF's antiquated Brewster Buffalos and cannibalised Hurricanes in Singapore or Malaya, his life expectancy might have been even shorter than the four weeks usually reckoned for those who fought in the Battle of Britain.

Wellum spent a part of the Battle of Britain terrified - he would often look up in his cockpit and see a massive gaggle of enemy planes in the distance, as he described it elsewhere, like a lot of gnats on a summer evening. On several occasions, he was convinced he was going to die, like so many of the other pilots in the skies above Britain in 1940 and 1941.

Geoffrey Wellum went through this storm and survived.

Not because he was a better pilot. He survived and others didn't, that's all. In our conversation, and in his memoir, one of the things that hardly features is heroism. His book has a distinctive modesty about it, as did the man. But underlying all this was a terrible, permanent sadness at the loss of his friends. When I asked him about individuals, he instantly recalled them and how they died.

Near the end of lunch, as I was about to stagger out - with Wellum stil garrulously going strong and, I suspect, not averse to another gin and tonic or two - I grabbed my four-year-old scampering about the bar and told her that Uncle Wellum was a brave fighter pilot - she sized him up and stated coolly to his face that she wanted to be an astronaut.

I don't think he minded. At 93, he got into his stylish vintage Jaguar (his earlier car was an Aston Martin), gave my wife a kiss on the cheek (and then impishly asked for another), and then sped off.

That's how I will remember him.

The sacrifices made by "The Few", fighter pilots who fought, and defeated and Luftwaffe over the skies of Britain in the desperate summer of 1940, together with unsung heroines like Mary Ellis, what do they have to do with us in Singapore? On the surface, not very much perhaps. But are we so sure that people like this do not exist closer to home? Even as those who lived through Singapore's most turbulent times (including the Occupation) leave the scene, there still may be some things left to be shared, and people who can share them, to inspire and educate us.

Consider for example "Winkie" Ho Weng Toh, 98, who during the war joined what became the legendary Flying Tigers as a bomber pilot, cheating death on numerous occasions. He later rose to become a chief pilot at Singapore Airlines and now lives a quiet life in Pasir Ris. Thanks to media coverage in recent years, and, fortunately, Captain Ho's own willingness to share, his story has become better known.

But I suspect that there are others, less well-known, from our own great generation with stories to tell, or who were part of our history but have somehow been overlooked. If you come to know of them still with us, please ask them to rummage through their desk drawers - jottings, journals, diaries, and most importantly, their memories. Do this before it is too late, and before they pass out of lived experience and memory. If you think you have something, or have found someone, contact the National Archives or the Oral History Centre.

I've been bugged enough by this wisp of Spender's poetry to look up the whole thing and with a few clicks, I have found it. This is how it ends.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
* * *
(Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is also chairman of the National Archives Advisory Committee.)

Edited to correct a typo.
Last edited by alderaanian on 30 Aug 2018, 15:16, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: WWII in Singapore media

Postby alderaanian » 30 Aug 2018, 06:02

Two other pilots from Singapore who flew in WWII have also had their stories told by one of the popular social media sites this year:

Tan Kay Hai, who flew in North Africa with the RAF, was the only Singaporean pilot to have flown on D-Day, and the first Straits Chinese pilot to be awarded the DFC. Not to mention, he also was captured by the Germans, sent to Stalag Luft III (made famous by The Great Escape), and escaped by jumping off a train!
https://mothership.sg/2018/02/singapore ... ns-europe/

Ho Weng Toh, mentioned in the article in the previous post, who was a bomber pilot with the Flying Tigers (the collaboration between American and Chinese military to fight the Japanese from China), and is currently the last surviving member of the Flying Tigers in Asia
https://mothership.sg/2018/08/ho-weng-t ... ot-part-1/

(Their stories give a very different perspective of the war from what most of the local civilian population experienced under the Japanese Occupation, which my grandparents lived through. It is considered the darkest point in our history, has been dramatised in local popular culture, and is properly the stuff of nightmares)
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Re: WWII in Singapore media

Postby Spitfire666 » 30 Aug 2018, 06:51

Thank you so much for all this. Absolutely fascinating. We are always learning so much on this Forum and I am extremely grateful to everyone who shares more stories with us.
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Re: WWII in Singapore media

Postby Tracer » 30 Aug 2018, 08:19

In my pile of to-be-read is the Geoffrey Wellum book. I have just moved it to the top following your post. Thank you.
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Re: WWII in Singapore media

Postby Fairblue » 30 Aug 2018, 09:19

Thank you very much for sharing this. . It must have been a great privilege for the author. I've read First Light and it is a great read.
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Re: WWII in Singapore media

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 30 Aug 2018, 14:52

Tracer wrote:In my pile of to-be-read is the Geoffrey Wellum book. I have just moved it to the top following your post. Thank you.

I echo all of the above, absolutely brilliant story! Which reminds me, I must get out Mr. Wellum's book & read it again [when I can find it amongst all the piles here & there, lol]. :?
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