Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Spencer Chapman, DSO & Bar, ED (10 May 1907 – 8 August 1971) was a British Army officer and World War II veteran, most famous as an explorer and adventurer, and for his exploits behind enemy lines in Japanese occupied Malaya.
Chapman’s mother, Winifred Ormond, died shortly after his birth in London. His father, Frank Spencer Chapman, was killed at the Battle of Ypres during WWI. Freddy as he was known, and his older brother, Robert, were cared for by an elderly clergyman and his wife in the village of Cartmel, on the edge the Lake District in northwest England. He was schooled at Sedbergh School before studying at Cambridge University.
Chapman joined Gino Watkins’ 1930-31 British Arctic Air-Route Expedition and a subsequent Greenland Expedition in 1932–33 as the “ski expert and naturalist”. In these expeditions he experienced cold of such intensity that he lost all his finger and toe nails. He spent twenty hours in a storm at sea in his kayak and at one point slipped into a deep crevasse, saving himself only by holding onto the handles of his dog sled and hauling himself out. He later led a three man team across the desolate Greenland ice-cap, the first European to do this since Nansen. He was fluent in Inuit and was an able Inuit kayaker and dog sledger.
He also fathered a son by an Inuit girl but the child died a year later. He was awarded the Polar Medal for his participation in the first expedition. It was clear that Gino Watkins moulded an extraordinary esprit de corps in his expeditions, and the expedition members were a strange mixture of military intelligence (MI) officers, hard nuts, and foppish Cambridge misfits. Many of the members would go on to do extraordinary things in the war. These members included Martin Lindsay, Augustine Courtauld and Chapman himself.
In 1935, Chapman travelled to Finnish and Norwegian Lapland, and had “an exciting” expedition on skis with a reindeer called Isaac, which he eventually sold to a butcher.
Early in 1936, he joined a Himalayan climbing expedition. He was a keen mountaineer and enjoyed the difficult climbs and conquered peaks, as well as meeting Basil Gould, the Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould invited Spencer to be his private secretary on his political mission, from July 1936 to February 1937, to persuade the Panchen Lama to return from China and establish permanent British representation in Lhasa. Spencer learnt Tibetan well enough to converse.
He was involved in cypher work, kept a meteorological log, pressed six hundred plants, dried seeds, and made notes on bird life. He kept a diary of “events” in Lhasa and took many photographs that were sent to India on a weekly basis. He was allowed to explore within Tibet and did so in an unshepherded way into the middle of Tibet and around the Holy City.
After his return from Lhasa, Chapman obtained permission to lead a five-man expedition from Sikkim to the holy mountain Chomolhari, which the British group had passed on the way from Sikkim to Tibet in July 1936. Chapman and Sherpa Passang Dawa Lama succeeded to become the first mountaineers to climb the 7314 m high peak, which they finally reached from the Bhutanese side after finding the route from the Tibetan side impassable. The mountain would not be climbed again until 1970.
In 1938 Spencer taught at Gordonstoun School in Scotland where Prince Philip was one of his pupils. Commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders as a lieutenant on 6 June 1939, Chapman was attached to a secret unit of designated the 5th Scots Guards, where he trained at Chamonix in the French Alps for a secret operation to assist the Finns in their Winter War against the Soviets. Just as the unit was boarding the transport ship bound for Finland, word came through that the Finns had capitulated. In 1941 Chapman served a spell as instructor at the S.O.E. training centre at Arisaig in Scotland and was then posted to a Commando School in Australia to train Australian and New Zealand Independent Company and Z Special Unit troops in guerrilla warfare.
Chapman sought, and was granted, a transfer to the SOE’s 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 in the very likely event of war breaking out in the Pacific.
In August 1941, a plan for stay-behind parties that would include local Indians, Chinese and Malays was proposed, but this was rejected by the British colonial governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, as extravagant and defeatist. By now a Captain, Chapman took part in undercover raids during the Japanese invasion. When Singapore did fall, in early 1942, Chapman disappeared into the mountains, not to emerge again until May 1945.
Conditions were atrocious. Half-starved, delirious due to malaria and festering ulcers from leech bites, Chapman and the two Brits he had eventually linked up with daubed themselves in dye, marched miles through the dense jungle by night, and set about inconveniencing the Japanese. In the first fortnight alone, they blew up 15 railway bridges, derailed seven trains and exploded 40 military vehicles, mostly using homemade bombs of gelignite hidden in bamboo sticks. They used 1,000lb of explosives, threw 100 grenades, and caused – according to Chapman’s own estimate – between 500 and 1,500 enemy casualties. The Japanese command believed it was up against 200 highly trained commandos, and deployed 2,000 troops to hunt the three-man band down.
Aware that this rate of attack could never be kept up, Chapman tried to make it to the sea but was eventually forced back into the jungle where he started training local insurgents – teaching them to whistle The Lambeth Walk for identification purposes after dark while announcing his own nocturnal arrival with the cry of a British tawny owl. The risks were immense. When any of the locals who assisted him were caught, their whole village would be burnt to the ground – the inhabitants incinerated inside their houses, or shot and bayoneted to death, men, women and children. Chastened by such endurance, despite suffering many of the jungle’s ills – pneumonia, infected leech bites and blackwater fever, a variant of malaria that caused him ‘frightful vomiting and dysentery, accompanied by such agonising pains across my pelvis that it seemed as if all my bones must come apart’. When the fever was at its height, his fits were so bad that two men had to hold him down. He travelled to other guerilla camps and en route he lived variously with Chinese bandits, Malay tribespeople and communists. On one such visit he was served a special banquet, with an unfamiliar meat. It was only later he learned the hideous truth. ‘I was told I had been eating Jap,’ he wrote. ‘Though I would not knowingly have become a cannibal, I was quite interested to have sampled human flesh.’
Almost permanently sick, Chapman spent 17 days in a coma, only subsequently realising what had happened from the absence of any notes in his diary. Once, he was so feverish that his mouth had to be bound shut to prevent his chattering teeth giving away his whereabouts to a Japanese patrol. And on the one occasion he was captured, Chapman blithely announced that a Japanese prince had been his keen birdwatching companion at Cambridge. The arresting officer was apparently so charmed that he apologised for having no whisky to offer Chapman, and declined to bind his hands and feet. Chapman then waited till dead of night and, despite a debilitating bout of malaria, made good his escape.
In December 1943, he was overjoyed to be joined by two special forces officers, John Davis and Richard Broome, who had been landed in Malaya by submarine to coordinate guerilla activity for a planned Allied invasion. For over a year they worked as a three-man unit, training Chinese guerillas, making contact with other resistance groups and trying desperately to procure a working radio. At last, in February 1945, they obtained one and made contact with the British forces in Ceylon, who were at first reluctant to believe that any of them, but particularly Chapman, could possibly be alive after so long in the jungle. A rescue plan was soon launched to bring the jungle heroes home and in May 1945, after a hazardous journey to the coast, they were picked up by submarine and taken back to Ceylon. Chapman’s heroic tale of survival was over and three months later Japan finally surrendered. In recognition of his extraordinary achievements and endurance he was given a DSO and bar, although not the Victoria Cross that many, including Mountbatten, thought he deserved.
Yet for years after the war, Chapman felt a keen sense of despair. Having sealed off his emotions in the jungle, in peace-time he found himself tormented by memories of ‘companions shot down beside me . . . the screams of defenceless Chinese women and children bayoneted to death by the Japanese’. Writing of Chapman after the war, Field Marshal Earl Wavell said that, “for sheer courage and endurance, physical and mental”, the adventurer-naturalist stood together with TE Lawrence as “examples of what toughness the body will find, if the spirit within it is tough”. Both, Wavell reckoned, were “very worthy representatives of our national capacity for individual enterprise”. Quite why Chapman hasn’t found Lawrence of Arabia’s fame is anyone’s guess. After the war, he was headmaster of schools in Germany and South Africa. Married with three children, he ended up as warden of a hall of residence at Reading University in the UK. Forced to retire before he would have wished, aware his health and energy were no longer what they were, and suffering from one of the periodic bouts of depression that had gripped him since his university days, he shot himself in the head in his office, aged 64. Chapman wrote a number of books, including perhaps his most famous, “The Jungle is Neutral.”
Watch for more posts on Freddy Spencer-Chapman and his wartime work in Australia.