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Prisoner of Japan: A Personal War Diary, Singapore, Siam & Burma 1941-1945 Paperback – 14 Nov 2012
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About the Author
Born in 1918, Harold Atcherley served in the army throughout the war. He had the misfortune to land in Singapore with the 5th British Infantry Division in January 1942 and became a prisoner of the Japanese shortly afterwards when the surrender of the island to the Japanese. The War diary which he kept during his three and a half years in captivity records his experiences in Changi Prisoner of War Camp and hard labour on the construction of the Burma Thailand Railway. He returned home at the end of the war in 1945 and resumed his career with the Royal Dutch Shell Group the following year. He married Anita Leslie, with whom he had three children, and was posted to the Middle East in 1946. Some four years later he went to South America. He returned to work in England in 1960 and retired from the oil industry in 1970. For the next thirty years he served in a voluntary capacity as chairman of a number of government advisory groups, in recognition of which he was awarded a knighthood in 1977. He was also chairman of several charitable organisations including Toynbee Hall and the Aldborough Foundation. For the last 23 years he has lived in Suffolk with wife Sarah, finally retiring at the age of 80.
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I'm glad I read both books and have enormous sympathy for what the authors and thousands of others suffered on my behalf ( born 1945) but in the end I empathised far more with Urquhart than with Atcherley
Harold Atcherley was on the way to a successful career with the oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell when war broke out. Commissioned as an intelligence officer at the HQ of the 18th British Infantry Division he arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942. Two weeks later he was a Prisoner of War. He began writing the diary in May 1942 and continued it until he was repatriated from Singapore in September 1945. Besides the first few months of captivity, which he recreates from memory, the only gap is between April and December of 1943 when he was working on the Burma/Thailand Railway. After the war he returned to Royal Dutch Shell and a career in public service. He was knighted in 1977.
Atcherley's diary focuses on the day-to-day privations and tedium of camp life and on his state of mind throughout it all. But he writes with both perspective and perception. As an officer, perhaps, he was in a better position than many others to know what was going on in the camp even though what passed for knowledge was often little better than rumour. But as the years wore on he maintained a remarkable level of candour and insight about his feelings and emotions. Letters from home, for example, could be a very mixed blessing. The life they described seemed "so petty with all the stupid social conventions and traditions." To not receive a letter could be dissatisfying and yet to receive one could be even more so.
The diary was a form of self-discipline, of course. Reading was another. It might be Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism one day and Huxley's Essays of a Biologist the next; it was in fact. But even an intense and protracted reading regimen did not satisfy the need to keep his mind occupied. And so he took up Italian as well.
The early sections of the book dealing with Atcherley's enlistment, training and voyage to Singapore perhaps give the impression of a privileged, not to say charmed, life. He was an officer with a batman, after all, and the months before embarkation seemed to be a whirl of dances and dinner parties. My father's experience as a Royal Army Medical Corps orderly was rather different. But Atcherley was clearly troubled by the disparities in treatment between officers and ranks, for which he could see no justification. Indeed, his generous and fair-minded disposition extended to his assessment of the Japanese and his understanding of the challenges facing the world. By March 1943 (and perhaps much earlier) he had concluded that national sovereignty was an outmoded notion and that people needed to be taught that they had responsibilities to mankind, not just to the state in which they happened to have been born. "I have never wanted to fight Germans or Japanese," he writes. "How can anyone like or dislike a whole nation?"
A surprising question, perhaps, given Atcherley's POW experience, but that is precisely why he can ask it with such authority. It is an authority that is further enhanced throughout the published diary by Ronald Searle's drawings. Atcherley and Searle knew each other at Changi and were together through much of their captivity. Searle captured the face of barbarity as few other artists have managed to do. Prisoner of Japan is a fitting testament to two men - and countless others on both sides - who rose above it.
Together with 7000 others from F Force Harold was a prisoner of war, and somehow survived for 43 months. He kept a diary of those days, except while working on the Burma-Thailand railway, and these make up the narrative of this book. They describe the incessant cruelty, the starvation, the heat, the bizarre food they ate to survive, and the discussions they held on the meaning of life and how to reconcile their present lives with the great dreams that they had held before the war.
Most of can never even imagine such existence, or how men could survive it, but some did. Among them were Harold and a young artist called Ronald Searle. His sketches of life in the camp and in the jungle are spread through the book. If anyone can only think of Searle as a drawer of impudent schoolgirls, take a look at his drawing of a prisoner dying of cholera.
Yet the book is not about despair, but triumph. In spite of all the Japanese obscenities Harold and those around him seem able to have kept up their spirits and kept their minds open, even if their bodies were restricted to existing in closed surroundings.
'A prisoner in Japan' is an inspiring memoir. Sir Harold - as he became in '77 - is still alive in his nineties,and still a powerful speaker. Please read this book; it is a unique story of a unique English gentleman.
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