For 20 years I have had the privilege of meeting people who have lived through, or who have shaped, history. I shook the hand of one of the last survivors of the First World War. In a women’s centre in the north east Congo I sat and listened as survivors of the Rwandan genocide shared their appalling stories of enslavement at the hands of men who had murdered their families. I have interviewed Spitfire pilots and civil rights activists.
I have been fortunate to gain their unique insight and learn coping strategies for life’s many challenges – how to keep going in the face of adversity, how to have faith when all seems lost, how to forgive, how to be a good parent or husband. Preserving their stories is one of the best things about the work I have been lucky enough to do. But a few years ago I met one veteran who left a particular impression. Without his advice I would not be writing this, without whom there may very well be no History Hit at all.
Alastair Urquhart was just 19 when he was conscripted to serve King and Country in 1939. The young man found himself on a ship to the Far East. He was to be part of a British imperial force which would hopefully dissuade the Japanese from striking through South East Asia into the resource rich European colonies of the East Indies. The deterrence did not work. The Japanese invasion came and caught the British by surprise.
Two mighty naval battleships were sunk and British forces quickly found themselves pushed back to the fortress of Singapore, the rock of their East Asian empire. Alastair told me of the surprise they all felt. They couldn’t believe the Japanese could inflict such a string of defeats upon the British. Then the unimaginable happened and Singapore surrendered. 80,000 British and imperial troops went into captivity.
For Alastair this was just the start of a horrific experience that would leave him traumatised for decades to come. Like many others he was then sent to work on the infamous Burma Railroad. With insufficient food they hacked their way through the most inhospitable terrain, beset by tropical diseases, whilst being continually beaten and humiliated by their captors.
I met Alastair in his cosy house on the east coast of Scotland in 2015. He played me his favourite music and even did a little dance, clutching two walking sticks. After the war he became a champion ballroom dancer. A world far, far removed from the nightmare in Burma. He described his captivity graphically and the effect it had on his mental state.
After a few months he stopped making friends because of the pain of seeing them die of disease or watching them beaten to death. His coping strategy was one of remaining absolutely alone. He remembers clearly that never once in the camps did he hear laughter, and went for years without hearing a bar of music. He caught cholera while working at Hellfire Pass, one of the biggest cuttings on the Death Railway.
Hellfire was so-called because it was lit by flaming torches which cast a ghoulish light on the bent and broken malnourished labourers that hacked at the living rock. He was sent back to Singapore to be transported to Japan where the demands of total war created an insatiable demand for manpower.
He embarked on one of a fleet of ships known as ‘Hell Ships’. They were the worst part of his time in captivity he told me. They were shoved into the hold of a cargo ship and men fought for floor space to lie down on. “We were reduced to animals,” he told me. The ship was sunk by an American submarine the crew of which had no idea of its human cargo. By pure luck he was one of a very few survivors.
After days clinging to wreckage he was picked up, covered in oil by Japanese fisherman who beat him unconscious. Once in Japan he was sent to a camp near the city of Nagasaki where he was worked relentlessly. Then, in August 1945 while he was cleaning the officers’ latrines he saw a searing flash and was blown across the room. The Americans had dropped their second nuclear bomb and within days the war was over.
Alastair was liberated and taken down through the wasteland that had been Nagasaki to the docks where he was hosed down with sea water, his first wash for three and a half years. Once aboard the US aircraft carrier he heard music again, it was Glenn Miller’s Sentimental Journey.
Alastair told me that he was still a captive. The memories besieged him 70 years later. He was in his nineties but his survival was miraculous. He had suffered from multiple cancers, possibly as a result of his exposure to radiation. The tropical diseases caused many enduring complications to his health and his mind had also never fully healed.
By coincidence when I met Alastair I had been feeling a bit sorry for myself. I knew my time as a broadcaster for major TV channels was coming to an end. I felt helpless and a bit hopeless. I did not know what the future would hold. I was gripped with a rising panic that a career and lifestyle that I loved might be coming to an end. I knew I wanted to start a podcast, launch a website, maybe even a TV channel, but I didn’t have a clue where to start or who to go to for help.
I ended up telling Alastair about it all. My small, stupid, egotistical worries instantly faded as soon as I articulated them to him. But beyond that, Alastair gave me some advice. He simply said that what got him through everything, during the war and since, was a determination never ever to give up. I left his house feeling a little ashamed that I was anxious about the future when compared to Alastair’s experiences I had literally nothing to worry about. But I also felt a calm resolution. I was not going to go without a fight. I was not going to give up. I was going to persist, and if necessary fail, but I was not going to give up.
Alastair Urquhart died less than a year later. His example, his writing and his wisdom have changed the lives of so many people, and they changed mine too. It was one of those chance meetings that can transform our lives. Years later my ambition to build History Hit is a reality. Luck has played a bigger part than I’d like to admit, but thanks to Alastair Urquhart I kept at it, and for that advice at that time, as well as for so much else, I will remember him.