Lost Films of the British Army – how a cache of film brought back buried WW2 memories

A new Channel 4 documentary brings to life the experience of the British Army in Burma

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“Continue in the task until all your ammunition is expended,” demanded Commander Matuguchi, the Japanese general in charge of sweeping the British out of Burma during the Second World War.

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Addressing his exhausted troops in the early morning light, he made his expectations brutally clear: “If your hands are broken, fight with your feet. If your hands and feet are broken, fight with your teeth. If there is no breath left in your body, fight with your spirit. Lack of weapons is no excuse for defeat.”

This was the enemy the Allies were facing in the longest and, arguably, fiercest campaign of the Second World War – the struggle to fight off the Japanese advance in Burma, fought between 1941 and 1945 through the most inhospitable jungle terrain imaginable.

The men who fought are often referred to as part of the Forgotten Army: the 14th Army. Forgotten because they were fighting 5,000 miles away from home. Forgotten because the land war in Europe was on the doorstep.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF1phWcpZP4

A new Channel 4 documentary aims to correct all that. Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army is about the men and women who went to Burma, the men and women and children they left behind and, in some cases, never saw again.

Kenneth Chadwick, a 93-year-old veteran, a teenage trainee gas fitter from Salford when he was called up, considers himself “lucky”. He came home. “I had terrible nightmares for years,” he says now. “You never forget the smell of death or the crack of a rifle.”

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Kenneth Chadwick during service in Burma

The reason Kenneth is speaking about it now is because, during the renovation of Manchester Town Hall in 1984, builders came across 35 canisters in the basement and, rather than just throw them into a skip, somebody opened them up. The contents, along with a typewritten list of names and addresses of the soldiers taking part, were messages home. Social media before such a thing existed.

The canisters contained 23 films that were part of a morale-raising propaganda series entitled “Calling Blighty”, where soldiers, some of whom had been away from home for as many as three years, were invited to talk to their loved ones via the medium of film.

As the impeccably BBC accented announcer puts it, “Greetings, Manchester, from the banks of the Irrawaddy.”

The Northern squaddies also do their best to strangle their vowels: “I never spoke like that,” laughs Kenneth now, “I’ve no idea why I was talking like that.”

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93-yearol Kenneth Chadwick now

“I don’t really remember that much about it,” he says. “It was just something to do. I wasn’t ordered to do it, I don’t think, it was just the case that I was missing home and I had a chance to get a message back.”

The North West Film Archive refers to these films as “gold dust.” The Channel 4 documentary calls them “Intimate messages in a tin can”.

They are certainly that: the messages are heartbreakingly poignant, working-class men talking to their women and children and ‘Mams and dads’. Artificially formal and upbeat to our ears perhaps, but it’s all about hearing between the lines.

Ann Alsop (below), a Mancunian now living in Sheffield, found out about the discovery of the films when a TV production company sent her a letter out of the blue

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Ann never knew her father. John Hartley (No. 3390842, East Lancs regiment) was a soldier who never came home. Ann was two years old when he was killed and her mother later remarried. “We never spoke about him,” Ann says. “I had a wonderful stepdad but it was something my mother was never really comfortable discussing I suppose. I knew my father had been killed in Burma but I never knew anything much about him. And then I suddenly get a chance to hear his voice and see his face but also, in a strange way, see him move.”

“I trust you are all well,” says Hartley in the film, talking to the young daughter he would never see. “As I am at present.”

Hartley died in Burma and is buried there. Ann visits his grave as part of the documentary. “He must have thought or suspected that he was going to die out there,” she thinks now. Had the letter not dropped on to her doormat she would never have had the chance to visit Burma and pay her respects to the father she never knew.

“Yes, of course, the finding of these films has changed my life,” she says. “But in a very positive way. I look into the film and look into his eyes, if you look at them carefully you can tell they were different colours, hazel and blue I think. I have pictures of my parents looking so happy just after they were married and letters… but to hear his voice, I’m just so very grateful nobody just threw these films away.”

Across the Pennines, Kenneth disappears into the kitchen to come back with a battered ration tin full of pictures and memories. He struggles to pull it open – it is jammed tight. But he does. There’s currency from the period – taken from the body of a dead Japanese soldier – his I.D cards, pictures of dead friends.

 “You could hear the Japanese soldiers at night. That’s how close they were. Only yards away,” says Kenneth. “The heat was intense, terrible. I can still feel it if I think about it. The jungle was completely new to us; all of a sudden we were in this hellhole with people shooting at us. The furthest some of us had gone before this was Blackpool.” 

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Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army airs at 8pm on Channel 4 this Sunday 26 June