THOSE prophets of doom who go around selling the British Empire short might reconsider their position if they were to read these two books: Escape to Adventure by Fitzroy Maclean (Little, Brown, $4.00) and The Jungle Is Neutral by F. Spencer Chapman, D.S.O. (W. W. Norton, $3.75). Here are told the wartime experiences of two extraordinary young men, neither of them a professional soldier, which in standard of performance, in daring and stubborn fortitude, rival the adventures of T. E. Lawrence in World War I or the exploits of the great Elizabethan days. Indeed, there is in both books something of the Elizabethan spirit — an unflinching gallantry, an almost contemptuous refusal to be downhearted under appalling circumstances, and a spirit which sought danger rather than avoided it. One can be sure that Michael Drayton would have included these authors in that group of “gentlemen adventurers” of the Virginia Voyage whom he addressed as
Worthy your country’s name.
And it is in the same Elizabethan tradition that these men could not only carry out their immensely difficult and complex duties in strange lands with alien allies but were also competent afterwards to write their stories in vivid, forthright prose which few professional writers could surpass. Their styles are utterly different. Maclean is gay, witty, and trenchant. Chapman speaks always plainly and simply, sometimes with almost brutal understatement. When you have finished reading them, you realize that each has told his story flawlessly, that each has truly expressed himself in narrative — and this is a rare thing.
Brigadier Maclean’s story is one in which a high degree of intelligence and all-round ability are devoted to the more exotic and exciting elements of modern warfare. A graduate of Eton and Cambridge, he entered the Foreign Service in 1933 at the age of twenty-two. Dissatisfied with the pleasant life of the diplomatic set in Paris, where he was stationed, he applied for an appointment at Moscow, which was generally regarded as a diplomatic Purgatory. There, in characteristic fashion, he became fluent in Russian and spent his leaves in exploration of the Soviet hinterland. This was no easy task, and his lonely travels in Asiatic Russia were made in spite of the efforts of Soviet officials to arrest or detain him. The outbreak of war found him in the Foreign Office in London. He resigned to enter the armed forces but was told that his resignation would not be accepted.
A careful study of the Foreign Office regulations revealed that a resignation to enter politics had to be accepted, and on that basis he was released. Promptly enlisting as a private soldier in the Cameron Highlanders, a regiment which his father had commanded in World War I, he won a commission but was informed that the Foreign Office was inquiring about his political career. There was a by-election scheduled in Lancaster. He applied for the Conservative candidacy, was chosen, campaigned for the office, and was duly elected M.P. for Lancaster. Some time later he met Churchill in Egypt. “ ‘Here,’ he said, dragging me up to General Smuts, ‘is the young man who used the Mother of Parliaments as a public convenience.’”
Maclean did not stay long with his regiment. He must have been a marked man. Called to Cairo, he joined up with the Special Air Service, a group of parachutists which, along with the Long Range Desert Group, was assigned to sabotage raids behind Rommel’s lines. This was a most dashing as it was a perilous and exhausting service, and one cannot help wondering how any of them escaped. Maclean was one who did. After an excursion to kidnap a Persian general in Isfahan, he was recalled to London and told that his next mission was to be dropped in Yugoslavia and to work in coöperation with the Partisans under Tito, then an almost legendary character. “What we want,” the Prime Minister told him, “is a daring Ambassadorleader to these hardy and hunted guerrillas.” He flew with a small group to Yugoslavia and there he stayed until the Partisans joined with the invading Russian Army to capture Belgrade — the top British officer in that hard, irregular campaign, fighting, marching, organizing resistance, speeding up supplies and air support, faithfully giving aid and comfort to Tito’s followers; at once soldier, diplomat, and to some degree a maker of policy. He carried out this important and difficult assignment with brilliance, and then he flew home — to what other duties he does not tell us. At that time he was just thirty-four years old. What a man!
While his book lacks the mystique and poetry of Lawrence’s writing, it is clear and lively always, at times breath-taking in its hard, nervous description of action. He is equally impressive as a writer and as a man of action.
IF The Jungle Is Neutral is a less sparkling story than Brigadier Maclean’s, it is due to the nature of the experiences described and not to the author’s inability to write about them. Colonel Chapman had no brilliant contacts with high-ranking politicians or soldiers. In fact, he had only rare and difficult contacts with any men of his own race, hunted men living precariously in jungle hide-outs, ill and hungry like himself. Mostly he lived and worked with groups of Chinese Communists, who made up the only effective underground resistance in Malaya after the fall of Singapore. He drilled these willing but unmilitary guerrillas, taught them jungle craft, helped provide arms and munitions, and, under the greatest handicaps, kept everlastingly fighting the Japs and sabotaging their communications. His was largely a lonely endurance of intolerable conditions. Mere survival was a triumph, moral and physical. That he succeeded in his mission is a tribute to his courage, his sagacity, and his unconquerable will.
Colonel Chapman was a schoolmaster just prior to the war, with a taste for outdoor life and considerable experience as a mountaineer and explorer. After enlisting in the army he contrived to get special training in commando and field work and became an instructor in these arts of irregular warfare. The strange destinies of war took him to Australia and later to Singapore, where he continued to instruct Europeans and natives in guerrilla tactics. As the disastrous Malaya campaign developed, he carried on reconnaissance behind the Japanese lines and was finally, with two other officers, “left behind” as part of an organization of saboteurs — an organization which was promptly swamped before it could get going. The three of them, however, while they still had demolition material, “derailed seven or eight trains, surely damaged at least fifteen bridges, cut the railway line in about sixty places, damaged or destroyed some forty motor vehicles, and killed or wounded somewhere between five and fifteen hundred Japs.”
Alas, these days of achievement were numbered. Singapore fell. Their caches of food and equipment were captured by the Japanese or looted by natives. There was no place for them to go. Attempts to escape to India proved abortive. Most of the other British “left-behinds” succumbed to disease, hardship, and despair. At last Chapman established contacts with the Chinese Communists and for three years worked with these strange groups as friend, adviser, instructor, and leader. Three years — “Missing, believed killed,” with no means of communication, with no equipment or transportation, with no hope but his courage; wounded, captured by the Japanese (from whom he promptly escaped), underfed; weakened by every form of tropical disease and discomfort from mosquito and leech bites, through ulcers, jungle sores, dysentery, and recurrent malaria and other fevers — he kept on, always with destruction, capture, and torture at his elbow. He overcame incredible hardship, the utmost physical torment and spiritual depression, and when, at long last, radio contact, with the outside world was established and he left by submarine for Colombo Headquarters, he was conscious that he had created a disciplined force which needed only equipment to be formidable.
Of course, he returned to Malaya and was there for the final Japanese surrender. He had earned that reward. Viscount Mountbatten, his commander, said of him: “I very much doubt if anybody else can equal his adventures or achievements”; and Mountbatten should be a good judge of both. Surely here is the record of a great and gallant spirit — a “brave heroic mind, worthy his country’s name.” And, as is often the way with heroes, he tells his story so simply, in such plain, factual prose, that it is only by its cumulative effect that you are overcome by its extraordinary quality.
These two books are very different expressions of the same fundamental heroism—one is gay, gallant, sophisticated, and brilliant; the other is a sober, serious record of endurance and suffering. But both are the products of a rare breed of men. They lived very dangerously and they stuck to their jobs until they were well and truly accomplished.
Recently I heard a speaker say that the first time the Book of Common Prayer was used on North American soil was when Sir Francis Drake, that intrepid Elizabethan, landed on what is now San Francisco. On that occasion this prayer was read:
“O Lord God, when Thou givest to Thy servants to endeavor any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished which yieldeth the true glory.”