Griff Rhys Jones; Family history exploration….

My dad had been a Regimental Medical Officer [RMO], but instead of telling me how he threw six grenades into a foxhole and dispatched the enemy with his bayonet, which was what I wanted aged six, he tended to avoid the subject.

He preferred to tell me about the sergeant-major’s carelessly dropped fag in a latrine recently doused with petrol to clear the mosquitoes, and the subsequent explosion. Or the beauties of a pagoda across the jungle. Glimpses into his experience. But what was it really like?

My father has been dead for over 20 years, so I can no longer ask him. I wasn’t expecting heroics. I wanted this film to deal with those who ‘also served’.

Churchill frequently complained that the army needed nine back-up men for every one fighting soldier, and I was ready to tell the story of a field hospital – I thought it was going to be a bit like M*A*S*H. Well it wasn’t. At the beginning of the documentary I talked to my mother. ‘Oh, he went into battle,’ she said. I reeled. He had told her things he’d never told his short-trousered sons. And the purpose of my journey was to find out why.

We obtained his war record. We tracked his training and his call-up. I read the sparse, hand-written entries that detail four years of service. It was a much bigger undertaking than I’d ever imagined.

And when I read the regimental diaries I began to realise that his brigade had been involved in heavy action. Harry Hutchinson, an officer in the same Gold Coast regiment, explained that the RMO was far from safe behind the lines. This was jungle warfare.

They all went forward together. Finally, I read the chilling scrawled statement in October 1944, ‘entered concessionary area’, which simply meant that, after months of training, my father entered battle. He was to be there until the end of the war, and then another year after that.
He walked through 200 miles of jungle over the space of eight months, trying to clear out a ruthless and remorseless Japanese enemy, one hill after another. In the last months of action before the monsoon broke, his brigade was surrounded on the passes in the Arakan region and took heavy casualties from a Japanese counter attack as the enemy tried to retreat. Those casualties were his responsibility.

What has perhaps not been emphasised enough is how many of those soldiers were black West Africans, mostly from Ghana where my father had been sent to help raise a division on the way to Burma.

Across the whole battlefield, including the Africans, Gurkhas, Indian Army troops and Sikhs, 80 per cent of the Allies in Burma were non-white. This was a war fought by the British Empire to preserve that Empire. But the agonies Elwyn suffered as a young man of 24, as my mother explained, were because he was forced to choose which men to save and which he had to let die.
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