Category Archives: history

elephant moon

It’s been a little while since I last blogged, so I thought I’d do another book post.

Over the weekend I read “Elephant Moon”, by John Sweeney. Based on a true story, it is set in Burma during the second world war.

Grace Collins is a young Englishwoman who is sent to Burma by her father to keep her out of harm’s way whilst the war rages in Europe. Burma is, at the time, a British colony, with a large community of European expats ruling over the native Burmese. Grace finds herself teaching at Bishop Strachan’s, a school in Rangoon for orphaned “half-caste” girls. The girls are not true orphans, but abandoned mixed-race children, born to Burmese mothers and mostly British or American fathers. Too Burmese to fit in with the British expats, and too white to truly fit in with the Burmese, they are outcasts in society.

As the war begins to spread beyond Europe, Burma comes under threat from the Japanese. It eventually becomes apparent that the 8,000 expats in Burma would be powerless to resist a Japanese invasion, particularly since they would have no support from the native Burmese, who harbour feelings of resentment and hostility towards the British for having colonised their country. The colonial administration in Burma decides to evacuate the European population to the relative safety of neighbouring India.

The decision is made quickly, with no advance warning. Grace is warned of the impending evacuation by Lieutenant Peach, a British officer she has become friends with. Grace knows that her schoolchildren will be in particular danger once the British have left, as the Japanese will show no mercy to sixty-two half-caucasian teenage girls. Rather than fleeing with the rest of the Europeans, she decides to stay with her students and attempt to evacuate them to safety herself.

The story which follows is one of tremendous courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Grace and the children travel hundreds of miles on their decrepit school bus, with the help of many people they meet along the way. One of these is “the Jemadar”, an Indian soldier with his own story to tell, who plays a significant part in helping the children to escape and makes his own very unique contribution to the war. Lieutenant Peach also turns up at various intervals, always appearing when Grace and the children are most in need of help.

When the school are finally forced to abandon their bus in the heart of the jungle, with the Japanese only a few miles away, Grace believes that they cannot possibly survive. However, at that moment, they chance upon a group of men with a herd of elephants. Sam Metcalf, the “elephant man”, has one goal: to get his elephants to safety. He did not anticipate having to rescue sixty-two schoolchildren and their teacher. But he doesn’t have the heart to leave them to die, so he devises a plan to get all the men, Grace, the children and the elephants to safety.

I don’t want to give away any major plot spoilers, because this is worth a read. It’s John Sweeney’s first novel, and sometimes I think it shows. There are parts where I felt the plot was a little too sensationalist, or a character slightly under-developed. However, it was still very interesting and enjoyable. Before I read this book I knew very little about the history of Burma or the part it played in WWII. The author offers a not-so-subtle critique of the British administration in the former colonies, as well as detailing some of the unintended consequences of colonialism, and the role played by WWII in the dismantling of the British Empire.

Grace proves herself to be an extremely brave and resourceful woman, but I would have liked a little more development of her character. A decision she makes at the end of the book comes somewhat out of the blue, and seems quite inconsistent with what we know about her so far. I think it would have been more believable with a little more build-up, which the author could easily have done, as the book is not very long.

And finally, a word for the elephants. Could there be any better way to travel through the jungle? The author gives the elephants real charisma, which made me almost want to be there. (Yes, ok, I’d have to be a refugee who had lost everything, fleeing from a terrifying enemy force, but ELEPHANTS!) I think this book could have been improved if the author had devoted as much time and attention to developing the human characters’ personalities as he did to the elephants’, but that is my only real criticism.

Did I mention I loved the elephants?

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a long way to fall

Seventy years ago tonight, my grandpa was flying over Germany in a Halifax bomber when his plane was attacked by enemy fire. As the plane burst into flames and began to fall from the sky, he strapped on his parachute and jumped out, falling 17,000 feet and landing in a field a few miles from Berlin. He walked along a road through the bitterly cold night, until he reached the suburbs, where he turned himself in to the police. They locked him in a police cell overnight, and then the following morning he was taken to a prisoner of war camp, where he was to remain until the allied forces came to liberate them in 1945.

Six days after his plane was shot down, he turned twenty-one. He had reached the age of majority, but there wasn’t much to celebrate. He was in prison, in a foreign country, with no idea what had happened to the rest of his crew and having had no contact with his family.

Meanwhile, back in London, his family were anxiously waiting for news. The RAF had informed them that the plane had crashed, but no one knew whether he was dead or alive. In the end it was several weeks before they received news via the Red Cross that he was alive and had been taken prisoner.

His experiences during the war played a significant part in shaping the man he was to become. Out of the crew of eight, four of them died that night and four survived. He is now the only one left. My mum has always said he suffered from survivors’ guilt.

He has always wanted to be in control of every aspect of his life, and in charge of the rest of the family. He has always been the one to make decisions, and if anyone dares to challenge his authority, he is very quick to put them in their place. Perhaps this is a consequence of spending time in prison, where his control, freedom and autonomy were taken away from him.

He won’t eat porridge, or root vegetables. Turnips, in particular, have never been allowed to cross the threshold of his home. Even after all this time, he is physically repulsed by anything that reminds him of prison food.

And then there were the nightmares. Apparently he used to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, well into the 1970s. 

A few years ago, he discovered Google maps. As he was the flight navigator, he had a pretty accurate idea of exactly where his plane was when it was shot down. Out of curiosity, he began looking at aerial photographs of Berlin, trying to work out where it might have landed, and discovered a large patch of woodland. An idea had formed in his head, and it began to take hold. If the plane had landed in the woodland, it might still be there. With the help of my mum, who speaks German, he contacted a museum curator in Berlin. The curator spoke to one of his friends, a freelance journalist, who thought there was the potential for a good story.

And so it began.

First there were the adverts in the German newspapers, appealing for eye witnesses. It had been the only plane crash in that area at that particular time, and so it was entirely possible that someone might remember it. Several people came forward, including a man who had been about 12 years old at the time. He had seen the plane crash from his window, and the next morning he had gone looking for it. He found the wreckage of the plane and sketched the scene in his notebook, which he had kept throughout his life.

With the help of this man and several other eye witnesses, my grandpa and his new friends were able to pinpoint a rough area in which to start looking. They took their metal detectors into the woods, and after several hours of nothing but tin cans, they struck gold. Well, not actually gold, but large pieces of old steel. When someone unearthed a piece of metal bearing part of the serial number of the plane, they knew they had found it.

But this was too big a job for a few enthusiasts with metal detectors and spades. So the journalist called the police and informed them that they had found the wreckage of a WWII plane, and that there might be unexploded ordnance buried there. Within hours, the police had cordoned off the site and had begun their own excavation.

This led to another discovery. Human bones.

My grandpa was sure that they had found the remains of one of his crew members, John, who had never been accounted for. Having found the plane, he became obsessed with laying his former comrade to rest. He placed adverts in all the local newspapers in Newcastle, where John’s family had lived, asking anyone who knew of him or his family to get in touch. Several weeks later, he received a letter from John’s great nephew. John’s sister Marjorie was still alive, although she was extremely old by this point. Arrangements were made to take a DNA sample from her and compare it to a sample taken from the bones, to find out whether it really was John. The samples matched.

So, almost 65 years after he fell to his death, John was finally buried in Berlin, with full military honours. The funeral was attended by members of his family and members of our family, as well as representatives from the RAF and the German armed forces. His sister said that she had spent her life wondering what had happened to him in his final moments, and now she knew, she could finally lay his ghost to rest. A couple of months later, she died.

My grandpa has been haunted by his memories for most of his life. He has always been a very difficult man. For a while, after John’s funeral, he seemed to become lighter, as though a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He laughed and told jokes, and was happier than I had ever seen him. Recently, though, he has become very physically frail, and his mental faculties are starting to decline. He is afraid of what is happening to him, afraid of losing control, and afraid of the day when he is no longer able to live independently in his own home. He and my gran both need to move somewhere they can have access to 24 hour support, but he has said quite vehemently that the only way he is leaving his home is “feet first”. (His words, not mine.)

I often wonder how much his experiences have affected him, and what he would have been like if he had not gone through what he did during the war. My other grandfather was a very different kind of man, but he was also several years younger, and the war was over by the time he was old enough to fight.

A lot of very positive things have come out of this story. Finding John’s body allowed both his family and my grandpa to say goodbye properly, and to finally move on. It has also resulted in some lasting friendships between the people involved, both in England and in Germany. It was wonderful to see people who were on opposite sides during the war working together to achieve something so special.

But this story is also a reminder of how people’s lives are torn apart by war. It’s not just the people who died in plane crashes, or who were persecuted by the Nazis, or who were separated from their loved ones by the Berlin wall. My grandpa had it fairly easy, compared to many people. He survived without any lasting physical injuries, spent just over a year in prison, and then returned home safely. He went on to have a successful career, a beautiful wife and a large family. He was able to have many things which were denied to people like John, who lost his life at the age of 21, fighting for his country. But he still suffered, both during the war and for the rest of his life. They all fought and suffered so that the rest of us could live in safety and peace.

So next time I can feel myself getting irate on my daily commute, or wishing I had more money, or grumbling because my brother ate the last yoghurt, I’ll think about this, and hopefully it will put things into perspective.

Grandpa