Saturday, March 14, 2015

"The Japanese obviously did pep-talks differently"

In his fine The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, Andrew Roberts relates the horrors of the war - the Final Solution, the atrocities committed by the Japanese - with appropriate gravity and revulsion.

And yet, in even so terrible a landscape as the war presents, every once in a while a hint of extremely dry British humor bubbles to the surface.  Witness, for example, Roberts's description of a "pep-talk" given to his officers in April 1944 by Japanese General Kotoku Sato shortly before the Battle of Kohima, in which Japanese forces launched an attack on a mountaintop village held by British and Indian forces in northeastern India:

Despite his formidable advantage in numbers at Kohima, Sato had little faith in the success of U-Go [the code name for the Japanese plan to invade India] in general.  On the eve of the attack, he drank a glass of champagne with his divisional officers, telling them, "Ill take this opportunity, gentlemen, of making something quite clear to you.  Miracles apart, every one of you is likely to lose his life in this operation.  It isn't simply a question of the enemy's bullets.  You must be prepared for death by starvation in these mountain fastnesses."  The Japanese obviously did pep-talks differently.

The illustration is of Colonel Hugh Richards, whose 1,500-man British-Indian-Nepalese force held off more than 6,000 Japanese under Sato for almost two weeks.

"A nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a fly-swatter in camp"

I've been reading (and listening to) Andrew Roberts' exceptional The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.  Highly recommended. On the audio side, the Audible narrator, a British chap, is highly entertaining, although his imitations of an American accent need some work (his renditions of Churchillian cadence are excellent though).

But I digress.  The purpose of this post was to highlight this brief description - which had me laughing out loud - of the extraordinary Orde Wingate, a highly unconventional British commander who developed and led two long-range jungle penetration missions into Burma in 1943 and 1944 by British, Indian and Ghurka troops known as the Chindits:

A manic depressive who tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat with a knife in Cairo in 1941 after the Ethiopian campaign; a nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a fly-whisk in camp; someone who never bathed but instead cleaned himself by vigorously scrubbing of his body with a stiff brush, Wingate ate raw onions for pleasure and has been described as a "neurotic maverick" and a "foul-tempered, scruffily dressed egomaniac."

Roberts also relates that Wingate told luncheon companions at the War Office in August 1940 that "'he had acquired quite a taste for boiled python, which tasted like chicken.'"

Churchill loved him though, "call[ing] him 'this man of genius who might well have become a man of destiny' and liken[ing] him to Wingate's relation Lawrence of Arabia . . .."
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