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- John Capper
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- 22 June 2004
The First Chindit
From February onwards in 1942 occurred one of the most ignominious retreats in British military history. Thousands of British and Indian Army troops fled the length of Burma after the disaster of Singapore. They were often in groups of three and four men untrained in jungle conditions. Advancing were four million battle-hardened soldiers of the Japanese Empire.
Among the British Empire troops were the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. An indelible part of their regimental tradition was the Pipes and Band. And included in their number was a twenty-year old trumpeter who’d joined as a band boy five years earlier. A young man from South London called John Capper.
He would trek nine hundred miles over nine months, for the most part alone to finally reach safety in India. He suffered the incompetence and treachery of his officers, survived the hazards of the jungle and of disease and fought a one-man guerrilla war against the Japanese. And yet his survival in the end was dependent upon the improbable friendship and help of the Bronze Age Kayan people.
Unlike the later ‘Chindits’ of General Wingate he had no jungle training or special supplies. His exploits have never been recognised by the British Government, his tale has never before been told . . .
The ‘Blond Bastard’
John Capper was a mischievous child. A small boy with a shock of blond hair, he appeared perfectly angelic. He even had a beautiful singing voice. And yet, like most small boys, he refused to perform the role his mother and choir master so fervently desired him to. He was much more at home in the muck of his father’s building trade in Guildford and fighting with his brother.
It was no surprise when the recidivist rebel decided to follow his brother to the Army recruitment office at the age of fourteen, to attempt to enlist as a band boy. By this time he’d discovered a talent at playing the trumpet and one can only guess that his parents weren’t entirely displeased to see the stomping, noisy teenager leave.
His older brother failed to be accepted, but John (now Jack to his friends) waltzed into the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. From their English base, Jack was to be part of the group of Enniskillens sent to the Far East. In a short time he was on a boat to Singapore.
It was on board that Jack began to find his feet and his friends. Mickie Miles, a fellow band-boy became his inseparable pal (and also one of the few to survive the exploits to come). Bill Taylor, another band-boy and a horn player was, like Mickie Miles an orphan, a Barnado’s boy. He became so close to Jack that he was practically adopted by the Cappers after the war. All the boys were looked after by Sergeant Ashenhurst and ‘Busty’ Markham, in turn a father figure and a protector to the young lads.
Such protection was necessary. One or two of the officers became rather attracted to Jack in particular. It was as a result of his rebuttals of their advances and general mischief that he earned his moniker ‘The Blond Bastard’. And of course, this cemented his popularity among the rest of the men. One bandsman who took Jack under his wing was the similarly streetwise Jim Jones, from Birmingham. He taught Jack to swim in a rubber pool on the deck of the ship. Jack became so adept he was nicknamed ‘Dolphin’.
So the adventure had begun for Jack and it was mostly fun and games. When they reached Singapore Jack even took part in the Oriental Olympic Games in 1937, beating several proven athletes to the Gold Medal in the 200 yards sprint. Regular competitions took place between the lads of the regiment and the crews of German pocket battleships such as the Scharnhorst and the Graf Spee, prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
At the age of seventeen Jack shot up in height to 5’11”. So it was as a man that he went with the rest of the regiment to India to help put down riots in Calcutta. It was in India that the fun and games began to involve skills that would later be of use to Jack. It was here that he started to become a soldier.
Jack learnt one invaluable skill while helping in riot-torn Bengal — marksmanship. His eye had always been good. While a boy he’d been a playground legend for having the speed of reactions and the eye to grab flies out of the air and catch grass snakes and rodents in the fields that still surrounded Croydon in those days. Perhaps it was this ‘training’ that led him to represent the Enniskillen Fusiliers in the all-India Rifle competition and hit five Bull’s Eyes at the range of one mile. So famed was his expertise that he was recruited by Major ‘Minnie’ Boyle, the Government Officer in Bengal, as his chief marksman for the hunting of man-eating tigers.
Jack’s feral childhood also aided him in his recruitment of Peter, a dog that became his permanent companion. He was a remarkably skilled animal in the tracking of tigers and was excused many indiscretions including the killing of eleven goats and a dobie-man who’d strayed too near to Jack’s barrack room.
However it was in the shooting of riot ring-leaders that Jack was chiefly employed, a role that also saw him briefly serve in China.
It was in India that Jack also developed into something of a pugilist. This was caused in the main by the many arguments spawned by ill fortune in the Calcutta Cup and similar races. Racing, gambling and drinking were proud traditions of every Irish regiment after all. While on one occasion Jack managed to fell the British Lightweight champion Joe Dunn in a fortunate bout, the drinking proved less glorious. One massive bender saw him delivered comatose to an Indian tattoo artist who had half-completed a bloody guardian angel by the time Jack woke up. Over the next few days he had to visit the artist to have the huge tattoo completed — the payment was a bloody nose for the craftsman and those who’d employed him.
Soon though, news came that war had been declared and the regiment was returned to Changhi Barracks in Singapore for the Far Eastern ‘phoney war’ of 1940 to 1941.
During his time in Singapore Jack was charged with giving lectures on mortars, explosives and other weaponry. This was not a testing job and the pay was generous which left lots of time for sports and the opportunity to enjoy the delights of Raffles in ‘mufti’ dress. Three of the lads decided it was also the perfect opportunity to acquire mistresses and the Malay Chinese quarter seemed the perfect hunting ground. This culture required young girls to have acquired means for the provision of a dowry, and the men valued the sexually experienced.
So a young man could easily be expected to pick up a mistress while avoiding the risk of contracting venereal disease — these girls would remain faithful. Jack found a sixteen year old girl called Ah Pooh whom he named Lia. She seemed completely alone, living in a flat above a Chinese restaurant and was captivatingly beautiful. She became an adoring lover and treated Jack like a King when he arrived at her flat, despite the haphazard frequency of his visits.
Lia fell pregnant right at the time that the regiment was urgently moved from Singapore to Burma and Jack didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. He learnt on the grapevine later on that she’d had his son. Given the appalling treatment dished out to these girls by the Japanese, ending in the suicide of many it perhaps wasn’t surprising that try as he might after the war, he could find no trace of poor Lia or his son.
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