Escape from the Japanese

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Trapped in the depths of Japanese-held territory, it was rare for Allied prisoners of war to attempt escape. There was little chance of making contact with anti-guerrilla or underground organisations and no possibility of Europeans blending in with the local Asian populations. Failure, and recapture, meant execution.

This was what Lieutenant Commander R.B. Goodwin faced when he decided to escape from the Shamsuipo PoW Camp in Kowloon, Hong Kong in July 1944 after three years of internment. With no maps and no knowledge of the country or the language, Lieutenant Commander Goodwin set out across enemy territory and war-torn China. Because of the colour of his skin he had to travel during the hours of darkness for much of what was an 870-mile journey to reach British India.

Few of his fellow prisoners gave him any chance of succeeding, yet, little more than three months later, he was being transported to the safety of Calcutta. For his daring and determination Lieutenant Commander Goodwin was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

For weeks there had been electrical storms with constant rains, and Sunday the 16th of July 1944 was just another day of pouring rain, without, however, the usual display of lightning. In fact, when night fell, the rains came down with never a flash to break the darkness, a most unusual condition. Never before had there been such an opportunity.

Nothing could be done outside until after midnight, when the lights went out. Inside the huts all lights were switched off at 10 p.m., and after that my work began. With neighbours so close, there was only two feet between the bunks, I had to move with great care to avoid arousing suspicion. Mosquito- nets over the bunks hid me fairly well, and under my sheet I slipped on a shirt and shorts, and a pair of rubber-soled shoes.

Rain beat solidly on the roof and squalls whistled about the camp, making the interior of the hut seem,wonderfully comfortable by comparison with conditions outside. It would be so easy to slip off my clothes, relax the nervous tension, and settle down to peaceful sleep. Outside there was nothing but streaming wet discomfort, unknown and unseen dangers, death lurking in every shadow.

Lying there, listening to the sounds of tempest, straining my ears for any sounds to indicate the proximity of guards, it was grimly amusing to think of what might happen in the next hour or two. Having seen the reactions of the Japanese to previous alarms, it was easy to imagine the scene should a false move cause me to short-circuit the electrified wires on the fence. Before my frizzled body hit the ground there would be guards yelling and rushing about the camp.

Dozens of extra troops would be pouring in from Headquarters, and the whole camp would be paraded over and over again. There would be no more sleep for anyone that night because there had been caused so much inconvenience, so much loss of “face”, and such a display of panic and stupidity as to feed anew the smouldering sense of inferiority in our captors. Anything in the nature of an alarm caused such a pandemonium, and such a display of ineffective effort, that it was a dismal commentary on the ease with which they conquered all our own positions in the East.

Suddenly the lights went out and the camp was plunged into intense gloom. There was no suspicious sound, only the noise of the wind and the rain. No one stirred inside the hut. Lifting the mosquito-net I slid silently off my bed, lifted my pack from underneath, and crept along to the door. There was no one in sight, and I passed safely through. To be seen fully dressed and with a large bundle in my arms at that hour of the night would have called for an awkward explanation, and I had a keen interest in avoiding everyone. There would be interrogations on the morrow, and it was better that nothing should be known.

Outside, a soft rain was falling and darkness spread an impenetrable cloak. A wayward squall whistled along the fence, rattled the lamp-shades, and was gone. No one was about. There might be sentries standing against the huts, they did that sometimes, but conditions were perfect and it was no time to hesitate.

A few swift paces brought me to the bridge, and on the far side of that I dropped flat on my stomach to wriggle under the concertina wire. That was easy, for the wire had recently been raised a little by grass-cutters. By the time my pack had been pulled through, the rain had stopped, and just as I began to crawl towards the chosen lamp-post someone came to visit an open latrine that stood by the edge of the drain.

From my position on the ground I could see him very clearly against the sky, but the darkness of the ground sheltered me. Then several more men came out to join the first, taking advantage of the lull between showers, and in spite of the dark it did not inspire me with any great confidence to be lying there, not more than twelve feet distant, with nothing but a few thin strands of wire to hide me.

The intruders were much too clearly in view for my peace of mind, and valuable minutes were wasting. When three or four of the nocturnal wanderers had returned to their huts I decided to wait no longer, and began to crawl cautiously along the narrow path between the wire and the fence.

Then, having reached my post I was in the act of standing up, when approaching voices made me hug the ground again. This time it was the one o’clock change of guard going outwards, and it gave me a shock to know that already an hour of darkness had gone.

Three soldiers filed past, ten feet distant on the other side of the drain, and I am afraid I took rather a morbid interest in their silhouettes, especially in their rifles and bayonets so clearly etched against the gloomy background.

Rain was falling again, and lying there in the mud and water, scarcely breathing, it was not at all pleasant to think of the consequences should that party see me. I could do nothing until the relieved guards came in, and as it was a matter of only two or three minutes before they came trudging past, they were probably only too glad to return to the shelter of the guardhouse. It was then time for me to make the next move.

From long and close scrutiny I knew exactly what that fence was like, but in spite of all my study I had been unable to think of any way to pass the roll of concertina wire along the top. But the four electrified wires were my immediate danger, and I felt that if they could be successfully passed, the concertina wire would be beaten too.

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