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All Posts, Military History

Author Guest Post: Bryn Evans

Research: Seeking veterans’ inspirational stories for a new book – ‘To Escape, Survive – or Die’

Following my most recent book, Airmen’s Incredible Escapes (Sept 2020), I am seeking contributions for my research on a book in a similar vein. In these difficult times of the pandemic many readers of Airmen’s Incredible Escapes have told me how they have found inspiration and strength from veterans’ amazing accounts of survival.

The new book, which is planned to cover the Second World War, is envisaged as a collection of inspirational true stories of escape and survival from members of all armed services and civilians, with a tentative title, To Escape, Survive – or Die.

All escape and survival stories seem to be dependent to some degree upon an element of luck. The good fortune that assists someone’s escape appears to be random chance, indifferent to the individual and the circumstances. Yet often the person favoured by the will of the gods, feels as if an invisible power may have intervened to allow their survival.

The Roman goddess of fortune, Fortuna, was the personification of chance, luck and fate in Roman life and religion. She might bring good or bad luck, and was sometimes represented as veiled or blind, just as in more modern times the Lady of Justice is depicted. However Fortuna did not hold the scales of justice in a balance, but came to represent the capriciousness of life.

Another constant element is the fear experienced at the time by the survivor. Although there is nearly always a mixture of courage, skill and resilience assisted by luck, that enables escape and survival, some degree of good fortune pervades every such situation. The most inspiring element is the determination shown by those facing unimaginable adversity, irrespective of whether they survived or not.

These stories of miraculous escapes, or survival often over a period of time in extreme adversity, are found everywhere, so many little known and unrecorded, and demonstrate the relentless perseverance of the human spirit. Two such stories from the two World Wars well illustrate the remarkable persistence to go on when all seems lost.

In the First World War Walter was a private soldier in the Sherwood Foresters Regiment. In 1917 he was wounded on three occasions in France within a few months, The third wounding was critical, a serious gunshot or shrapnel in his neck, resulting in him being evacuated by ambulance train and ship to a hospital in Britain. Against all the odds Walter recovered and rejoined the Sherwood Foresters in March 1918 in the pivotal battle for Villers Bretonneux. Walter was in the front lines again to live or die in a battle where Allied forces must halt a major advance by the German army, otherwise the Allies would suffer a catastrophic defeat.

On the night of 7 December 1941, the same day of the attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, Japanese forces invaded Thailand and made amphibious landings in north eastern Malaya. In the face of the Japanese onslaught in northern Malaya at that time, Bill was a Captain and Quartermaster with infantry of the 2nd Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. Driven south with other formations of the British and Indian Armies by Japanese forces, the East Surreys suffered heavy casualties at the battles of Jitra and Gurin. By 20 December the East Surreys were reduced to less than 300 officers and other ranks, less than half their strength.

Over the next two months Bill and the remaining East Surreys, joined with the similarly decimated Leicester Regiment, and retreated south to Singapore. In mid-February with the Japanese conquest of Singapore imminent, Bill was ordered to take 24 men and evacuate by small boats to Java. On 14 February while being shelled by the enemy, Bill embarked with fourteen men in one gunboat, the Dragon Fly, one of the last boats to leave Singapore. The same day Japanese aircraft bombed and sank the boat with many casualties. Clad only in his shorts and bare to the waist Bill was hurled into the sea, and swam for his life. As Bill and other lucky survivors struggled in the water they were machine-gunned by Japanese fighters, losing more men. Bill and just a handful of remaining men swam on to an unknown fate. Could they make land, or be picked up by another boat?

Many survivors also owed their lives not only to fate, but also to the help of others, comrades, perfect strangers, or even enemy troops. Those who found themselves isolated in enemy occupied territory, only survived in most cases because of an instinctive desire to care by a civilian or a member of enemy forces. Such acts of kindness often led to the helper and their families if found out, being punished, tortured and executed by enemy authorities.

Amongst the stories of miraculous escapes and survival, there are those who did not in the end survive. Many men had remarkable escapes, even on multiple occasions, only for fortune to turn against them, so that they did not live to tell their stories. Yet in many cases their experiences were documented either by comrades, family, friends or the authorities.

Contact me

For my research on my next book I would be delighted to hear from any readers who can contribute a story of an amazing escape or survival. Written material by a veteran, a family member, friend or eyewitness, and previously unpublished would be preferred.

All contributions will be diligently read, and where assessed as a potential inclusion, a complimentary signed first edition of one of my previous books will be available. All contributors in the new book, To Escape, Survive – or Die, will receive a complimentary signed first edition on the book’s publication.

I can be contacted at bryn.evans@ozemail.com.au

Bryn Evans

Queensland

Australia

8 October 2021