Stranger In My Heart

By Mary Monro

Retracing her father’s heroic escape across China in World War Two leads his daughter on a gripping voyage of discovery about him, China and, inevitably, herself.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Almost there!

We are now at 97% of the funding target - tantalisingly close and just a very few more supporters needed. I have made up postcards advertising the book to hand out and, if you know of anyone who might be interested, do email them or I can send them a card if you let me have their details.

I hope you have seen the endorsement of my book from Damien Lewis, author of bestsellers such as Hunting The Nazi Bomb and Judy, Dog In A Million. He says:

"A well-written and deeply satisfying book, packed with information and adventure, as Mary Monro struggles to understand her WWII hero father, her inheritance, and herself. Above all, a damn good read!"

Here's an excerpt about Dad's escape, daring not just on his own part but with the potential for dreadful repercussions for his fellow POWs:

Dad weighed up all the options for escape and eventually settled on making a raft for their supplies and then swimming across the bay from the POW camp to the New Territories.

“Our first raft was made of two fir poles about 4” in diameter and about 8 feet long.  On these were lashed four pieces of board about 15” long and about 6” wide.  The whole thing was so arranged that with a few cuts with a knife it would fall to pieces. We had decided to make an attempt on the night 31 Jan/1 Feb.  Two hours before we were due to start, as I lay in bed trying to get what rest I could, memories of hydrostatics learnt at school passed through my mind.  I began to calculate, in my head, the displacement of our raft and the position of its metacentre.  Gradually the unpleasant certainty came to me, despite all my wishful hoping to the contrary, that our raft was barely adequate for the load it had to carry and furthermore would be most top heavy.  These forebodings were realised in full when we put it in the water.  We abandoned the attempt for that night”.

At last, Major Monro, his friend Flying Officer Norman Baugh and Captain IB Trevor – a Cantonese speaker who agreed to come at the last minute – set off at 11.20pm on the night of 1st February 1942. This seems to have been a popular night for escapes. A party comprising Sgt Danny Parrott, Mike Jacobs and Gunner John “Taff” Whitehead left a little later, as did Captain Tony Hewitt’s party (with Major Douglas Scriven and Pilot Officer Eddy Crossley). It was full moon – whilst making the actual getaway risky, it would light their way when they had to travel at night across the New Territories.

Dad had made a second raft, wider than the first, on which they loaded supplies for the journey. This included some food, a basic medical kit, a compass, some cash and a few clothes. They stepped out along a breakwater, which was about 1 metre under water at the time, and then swam, dragging and pushing the raft between them. They landed 50 minutes later, cold, wet and exhausted, but had to keep going to escape serious danger.  Whitehead and his colleagues set off a little later but waded through the mud rather than swimming. They were spotted and shot at, their silhouettes being visible, as Dad had predicted, with only three of the four making a successful getaway.

This was the most dangerous part of the journey. At any moment the escapers could have been recaptured or killed. The Japanese had “a system of reprisals, not stopping short of the death penalty, for recaptured prisoners or for any fellow prisoners who seemed to have helped in preparing an escape”.[1] They didn’t shoot prisoners, it was either beheading, bayoneting, strangling or being buried alive. Dad and his companions were not only risking their own lives.

The camp Commandant, Col Tokunaga, had made it quite clear to his prisoners that there would be punishments for escapes, including for sick or wounded men in the camp. Against this concern was the hope that prisoners would have a morale boost when they learned of successful escapes. Whitehead reports, however, that shortly after they left, three beheaded corpses were shown to the prisoners and named as Whitehead and his companions, recaptured and executed. Proof of their identity was given in the form of Whitehead’s paybook, supposedly found in ‘his’ pocket. This had a hugely deterrent effect on other plans for escape and, during the whole term of imprisonment, only 33 men ever escaped from Sham Shui Po.

If any escapers had a serious injury – quite a likely event in this terrain at night, their chances of making it into free China would have gone completely. They were taking an enormous risk, but perhaps they felt it was preferable to the unknown risks of staying in camp. Indeed, in 1942 there was a diphtheria epidemic in Sham Shui Po camp, on top of dysentery, malnutrition related illnesses, parasitic infestations and so on, let alone appalling quotidian discomforts and brutalities from their guards. In the first seven months 107 men died and by September 1942 most men were unfit to escape.


[1] MRD Foot and JM Langley MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-45, (London: Biteback, 2011) accessed at Imperial War Museum, London.

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