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Edward Willis

LIEUTENANT COLONEL FREDDIE SPENCER-CHAPMAN, 1907-1971 – Master of Guerrilla Jungle Warfare

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This story complements my earlier post: ‘BRIGADIER MICHAEL CALVERT (1913–1998) – Trainer and Long-Term Friend of the Doublereds’.

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Learning map reading at training, Foster.  L to R: unknown signaller, Mike Calvert, Freddie Spencer-Chapman

Source: Sparrow Force [memoir of Lieutenant John Albert Rose NX65630]

Both Freddie Spencer-Chapman and Michael Calvert were members of a small British military mission that arrived in Australia in November 1940.  Its task was to establish a covert camp to train Australians as special forces for use behind enemy lines.  The rugged and isolated Wilsons Promontory, a narrow-necked peninsula 230kms south east of Melbourne, was chosen.

Reflecting on the 60 years since the establishment of the No. 2 Independent Company, original member Ray Aitken asserted in 2001 that:

I firmly believe that the success of our Association stems from the oddity in our early history, namely, that spent in training on Wilson's Promontory, our contact with the British Army in the persons notably of Michael Calvert, a Commando demolitions officer, and Freddie Spencer-Chapman an Everest climber, … and again the strangeness of our service on the Island of Timor and hence our bond with the Timorese people.

[Source: Ray Aitken '60 years young' 2/2 Commando Courier Vol. 137, June 2001: 1]

SPENCER-CHAPMAN'S CHARACTER AND CAPABILITIES

Ralph Barker wrote the first full biography of Spencer-Chapman in 1975 and provides the following insights into his character and capabilities based on those who came to know him at Wilson’s Promontory:

[Source: Ralph Barker. -  One man's jungle: a biography of F. Spencer Chapman, DSO. – London: Chatto & Windus, 1975: 178-182.]

"He was asked if he would like to go to Australia, on a mission that was being sent to raise and train similar commando companies of Australians and New Zealanders, and he had no excuse to refuse.  "I am to go abroad in two weeks' time," he told Uncle Sam. "It is sad in that I have just got things going here and am enjoying a really interesting and important job."  But within a few days he was telling Erica Thompson: "I am looking forward to it for various reasons.  Life has been rather too complicated lately. Joss was stationed up Kyle way and I have been seeing a good deal of her, which was very stupid I suppose.  Queer that I don't seem to meet anybody else. Perhaps I shall in Australia .... "  Another incentive was that Australia was the only continent he had not yet visited.

No. 104 Mission, under Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood, with Captain Mike Calvert* in charge of demolitions and Freddy in charge of fieldcraft, and with two warrant officers in support, left Britain on 6th October 1940 in the S.S. Rimutaka, crossing the North Atlantic and heading south for the Panama Canal.  During the voyage Freddy and Mike Calvert established a relationship which they were always able to pick up again at the same point however long they were apart, based on mutual respect and an acceptance of where their lives and characters overlapped and interlocked and where they didn't.  In fact, they had little in common.  "Michael Calvert boxed and swam for Cambridge and the Army, has no nose left, and a large red good-natured rubber-like face which he can twist into the most ludicrous expressions," Freddy told Uncle Sam. "He is always laughing and cannot see why everybody else is not happy too."  And of Freddy Mike Calvert said later: "He was a strange mixture.  One moment he would be spouting high ideals, the next he would be supporting some perfidious scheme for blowing things up.  He talked like a liberal and acted like an anarchist, and it amused me how swiftly he could change from one to the other."

....

The Mission found the inertia of the Australian Government rather like England before Dunkirk, and with Mawhood absorbed in political and intelligence wrangles and intrigue, it was left to Freddy and Calvert to visit Australian units and recruit the men they needed.  A training area was chosen on Wilson's Promontory, at the extreme southern point of Victoria, running out into the Bass Strait towards Tasmania; this promontory, about 20 miles long and up to eight wide, was virtually uninhabited, and it included every conceivable type of ground.  There were high mountains and rocky crags, culminating in Mount Latrobe at 2,475 feet; eucalyptus forests as dense as any jungle; rolling open grassland and scrub; sand dunes and flats; every kind of swamp; harbours, beaches and islands to practise combined operations; and even a landing field.  It was thus ideally suited for training troops who might have to fight anywhere from the Libyan desert to the jungles of New Guinea.

A distinguished Australian soldier of the First World War, Major Stuart Love, was in overall command, and in Calvert's view he was an important influence in directing Freddy's ideas along practical lines.  Calvert was an ideal foil for Freddy, and the Australians, suspicious at first of Freddy's clipped speech, unusual mode of dress (he was still wearing the kilt of the 5th Seaforths), and aesthetic good looks, were gradually won over.  Yet for them Freddy was bound to remain something of an enigma. "His was not the easy camaraderie that appeals to all," writes ex-trainee Rolf Baldwin.  "He was austere and other-worldly, and these are not the qualities that inspire universal affection."  The other ranks were more amused than impressed by Freddy's stories of Greenland and the Himalayas, which, mimicked in a parody of the English accent, were always good for a laugh behind his back.  And with the Australian's raw sensitivity towards British insularity, they resented such eccentricities as Freddy's choice of "the cry of the British tawny owl" as the rallying cry for a patrol.  "What the bloody hell does he think we are?" they muttered. The inevitable snow bunting drew the same response.  Yet they developed a strong affinity with him, as a pupil does for a master, and his detractors were greatly outnumbered by his admirers.  "He told a good story and told it well," remembers J.H. Wass, "but always managed to turn it into a lesson which fitted into the training schedule.  "Wass speaks of Freddy's magnetism being such that everyone came to almost worship him.

"He had an impressive method of establishing a point in the training programme," writes Lex Fraser, who was second in command of the first of the Anzac independent companies. "For example, a day was to be spent in 'field-sketching' from the top of Mount Latrobe, and several groups were despatched to deal with varying segments of the field.  The exercise could not be completed in the one day and as evening approached, some of the parties returned to base camp.  Other parties completed the assignment and returned the following day.  Freddy dressed the parties who returned down to size, with such effect that all, without direction, started off once again for Mount Latrobe, and some returned as long as three days later, but with the required information.  This sort of training was invaluable to the morale of the independent companies."

Most troops have a sneaking regard for a leader who is different and a little eccentric, even if he infuriates them at times, and the Australians had certainly never met anyone like Freddy before.  He had many of the characteristics of the typical Pommie, with which they enjoyed a love-hate relationship of long standing; and in addition, he could out-walk, out-run, out-climb, out-track and out­ shoot the best of them.  "I recall an incident," writes Lex Fraser, "when, after Freddy had established a time of 23/4 hours for climbing Mount Latrobe from our base camp on the Tidal River, an Australian succeeded in lowering this by half an hour. I can still see the determined look on Freddy's face as he left base camp and requested that he be checked on his arrival at the summit.  He completed the limb in 13/4  hours and returned to camp at a lope.  'Now see if you can beat that,' he said.  To my knowledge, this remarkable record was never beaten."

Freddy himself described the training as a natural development of the Lochailort course, as practical as they could make it.  While CaIvert taught the art of demolition, he taught how to get a party from A to B and back by day or night in any sort of country and to arrive in a fit state to carry out its appointed task.  "This included all sorts of sidelines - a new conception of fitness, knowledge of the night sky, what to wear, what to take and how to carry it, what to eat and how to cook it, how to live off the country, tracking, memorizing routes, and how to escape if caught by the enemy."  Few were to put these aspects of fieldcraft to better use than Freddy himself; but they were, of course, little more than an extension of the way he had so often lived his life, right back to his schooldays. Writing after the Burma campaign, Mike Calvert called Freddy "the best man at all forms of fieldcraft that I know".

IN MALAYA

On completing their Australian training assignment, Calvert was posted to India and Spencer-Chapman to Malaya.  Commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders as a lieutenant on 6 June 1939, Chapman's love of the outdoor life and adventure lead to him being chosen for the mission in Australia.  That mission was to train Australian and New Zealand forces in guerrilla warfare and eventually to join what was then Special Training School 101 STS-101 in Singapore.  This school had as one of its main objects the organization of parties to stay behind in areas the Japanese might overrun.

Throughout the war Chapman remained a thorn in the Japanese side, accounting for the loss of no less than seven trains, fifteen bridges and forty motor vehicles and the killing of some hundreds of Japanese troops in a short period of time at the beginning of Japanese occupation.

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Source: Brian Moynahan. – Jungle soldier: the true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman. – London: Quercus, 2009: 276.

In early 1942, he ran out of the supplies that had been hidden for stay behind parties such as his team.  Freddie and his team then tried to escape from Malaya but had to hide from the Japanese in the Malayan jungle with the help of the Malayan Chinese Communists who lived in guerrilla camps in the jungle waging war with the Japanese.

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Source: Brian Moynahan. – Jungle soldier: the true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman. – London: Quercus, 2009: 209.

However, due to the bad conditions in the jungle and also due to Japanese attacks, he gradually lost all his team members through disease and gunfire and was completely cut off.  For more than one and a half years, he lived in jungle camps with Chinese Communist Guerrillas and travelled long distances through dense and difficult jungles often suffering high fevers, caused by malaria.

In late 1943, he finally re-established contact with the British. Two other Britons joined him from Force 136.  On a search-mission in the jungle for another stay-behind-Briton, Freddie was captured by the Japanese but managed to escape into jungle during the night, despite being surrounded by Japanese soldiers who were asleep as well as several on guard.

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Source: Brian Moynahan. – Jungle soldier: the true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman. – London: Quercus, 2009: 276.

Due to continued Japanese attacks, he and the two members of Force 136, were isolated again among the Communist Guerrillas until early 1945.  During that time, they had to fight against diseases of the jungle, namely, malaria, beriberi, dysentery and skin-ulcers from leech bites.  Finally, with the help of the Malayan Chinese Communists, they managed to repair their radio equipment with spare-parts collected by the Communist Guerrillas (the military wing of this being the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army) and could contact their headquarters in Colombo and organize reinforcements and supplies via parachute-drops into the jungle.  Subsequently, they could support liaison of the British with the Malayan Chinese Communist Guerrillas and managed to escape from occupied Malaya in the submarine ‘HMS Statesman’ after a remarkable trek from the mainland jungle to the island Pulau Pangkor off the west coast disguised as Chinese labourers.

Chapman was wounded twice during his time in Malaya, once in the leg by a steel nut from a homemade cartridge and once in the arm.  He was captured both by Japanese troops and by Chinese bandits and escaped from both.  He suffered in the jungle.  Once he was seventeen days unconscious, suffered from tick-typhus, blackwater fever and pneumonia.  Chronic malaria being the worst of it.  He walked bare foot for six days.

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Source: Brian Moynahan. – Jungle soldier: the true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman. – London: Quercus, 2009: 354.

However, much he suffered in the Malayan jungle, he attributed his survival to the basic rule that "the jungle is neutral".  By this description he meant that one should view the surroundings as neither good or bad but neutral.  The role of a survivalist is to expect nothing and accept the dangers and bounties of the jungle as of a natural course.  Hence, one's steady state of mind was of the utmost importance to ensure that the physical health of body and the will to live were reinforced on a daily basis.

In the foreword to Chapman's book on his experiences in Japanese occupied Malaya, ‘The Jungle Is Neutral’, Field Marshall Earl Wavell wrote "Colonel Chapman has never received the publicity and fame that were his predecessor's lot [referring to T.E. Lawrence]; but for sheer courage and endurance, physical and mental, the two men stand together as examples of what toughness the body will find, if the spirit within it is tough; …”.

POST WAR

On 21 February 1946 he was appointed to the Distinguished Service Order, backdated to 31 March 1944.  A Bar followed on 7 November 1946.

Like his fiend and training partner, Mike Calvert, Spencer-Chapman never fully settled into civilian life post-war, pursuing a career as a school headmaster and later manager of a university residential college; from time-to-time he suffered severe bouts of depression.  When his health began to fail he took his own life at the age of 64.

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ADDITIONAL READING

Work by Spencer-Chapman

F. Spencer Chapman. – The jungle is neutral. – London: Chatto & Windus, 1950.

https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.14185

Biographies of Spencer-Chapman

Ralph Barker. - One man's jungle: a biography of F. Spencer Chapman, D.S.O.– London: Chatto & Windus, 1975.

Brian Moynahan. – Jungle soldier: the true story of Freddy Spencer Chapman. – London: Quercus, 2009.

Shorter biographical treatments of Spencer-Chapman

Rebecca Kenneison ‘Freddy Spencer Chapman: from John’s to the jungle’ The Eagle 2014 [for members of St John’s College, Cambridge]: 35-42. https://en.calameo.com/read/002738954de73bd808b66

Jack Longland ‘Chapman, Frederick Spencer (1907–1971)’ in Oxford dictionary of national biography online.  http://www.oxforddnb.com.rp.nla.gov.au/view/printable/30919

Alan Ogden. – Tigers burning bright: SOE heroes in the Far East. – London: Bene Factum Publishing Ltd, 2013.  See espec. ‘Lieutenant Colonel Freddy Spencer Chapman, DSO and Bar’: 244-262.

Linda Parker. – Ice, steel and fire: British explorers in peace and war 1921-1945. – Solihull, West Midlands: Helion & Company Limited, 2013. See Chapter 2 ‘Freddie Spencer Chapman’: 85-141.

‘Freddie Spencer Chapman’ Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freddie_Spencer_Chapman

Vale

J.H. Wass ‘Spencer Chapman’ 2/2 Commando CourierVol. 25, No. 235 November 1971: 22-23.  https://doublereds.org.au/couriers/1971/Courier%20November%201971.pdf

 

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The author [Freddie Spencer Chapman] from a drawing by Peter Scott [1947]

Source: F. Spencer Chapman. – The jungle is neutral. – London: Chatto & Windus, 1950: [ii]

 

 

 

Edited by Edward Willis
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