ON Christmas Day 1941, a 21-year-old RAF engineer left Sudan with his squadron to head back to Britain at the end of a three-year posting.The journey placed George Dunbar right in the path of the Japanese as they invaded Singapore and Malaya and it was Christmas 1945 before he saw his Highland home again. Now 93, George tells Lynne Bradshaw how friendship and enjoying a good laugh helped him survive his escape in Java and the brutality of the prisoner of war camps.
WHEN you find yourself with nothing and no-one, the most insignificant, basic possession can take on a new value.
The only thing George Dunbar had in the world, apart from his clothes, when he found himself lost and separated from his squadron on the island of Java, was his RAF issue mug.
During the weeks he spent out in the wilderness after escaping from the Japanese, throughout the harrowing, cramped boat journey to Japan and the long, cruel years in prisoner of war camps, George had his mug slung around him on a bit of cable.
George’s story is a remarkable tale of survival – of a mischievous sense of humour, irrepressible spirit, quick wit and a knack for making friends which got him through the most hellish and inhumane of circumstances.
But what is perhaps just as remarkable is that George’s ceramic mug also survived.
As the sprightly 93-year-old sat in his Beauly home and told the extraordinary story of his World War II experience – quite often with a laugh in his voice and without a trace of bitterness – across the living room in a glass display cabinet sat his RAF mug.
It was issued to him in 1938, and the large heavy-based 76-year-old mug is not chipped or cracked, although the glaze is aging.
It meant the world to him back in the 1940s, and obviously still does. After all those years he is still not sure how he got off with being allowed to keep it.
“I often wondered why, as I was the only one who had anything like that,” he said.
“I was hit over the head with it twice. During searches I hid it in a bag and when they found it they would hit me with it. Luckily it didn’t crack my head, and it didn’t crack the mug either.
“It meant everything to me, I could use it for a lot of things and it held a lot, I could get all my rice and fish soup in it.
“It is the only souvenir I have got of my time over there.”
George was born in 1920 to John and Elizabeth Dunbar, who lived outside Elgin. He moved with his family to live in Balloch, Inverness, early on in life.
One of seven – he had three brothers and three sisters – he left Balloch school at the age of 15 and at 17 joined the RAF as an engineer.
After training George was posted to Egypt. In December 1941 his 211 squadron was in Sudan and on Christmas Day its members started making their way up to Port Suez in Egypt to get a boat back to the UK. His three-year posting had come to an end and George was expecting to go on leave before being posted to a British base.
The voyage was ill-fated as the treacherous waters were teeming with submarines and there were many sinkings. They headed for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then, looking for a safe harbour and with the hope of getting a flight home, they arrived in Singapore in January 1942, the day after the Japanese invaded.
The fall of Singapore came shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, which allowed Japan to pursue its occupation of Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia, known then as the Dutch East Indies.
In an attempt to keep one step ahead, George’s squadron then made its way to Sumatra, but the Japanese were not far behind.
“Singapore fell the day before we got there and the morning we landed in Sumatra the Japanese landed in the afternoon and it was a case of run, and fast,” said George.
That meant a quick diversion to Java. His squadron landed there with no transport or weapons and slept the night in the school.
The next morning he was sent with 10 other men to unload boats at the harbour.
“I never saw my squadron again,” said George.
“In the group, we were all British, all unarmed, we had absolutely nothing.”
At the harbour, they were set the laborious task of lugging ammunition boxes up and down the stairs from a huge ship.
When the boss went for lunch George sneaked up on the crane and got on with the job. “We had emptied half the ship by the time he got back,” said George.
Suddenly he spotted everybody down below running in all directions and from his vantage point 70ft up in the crane he saw 27 Japanese bombers coming in overhead and decided to stay put.
He watched as the bombs dropped on the ships out in the harbour about quarter of a mile away, then the aircraft circled away and returned for another round.
He lowered himself down to a deserted scene and it was clear the other 10 men were long gone. He was forced to seek out refuge in a large warehouse, full of food and rats.
“I was completely on my own. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had no one to appeal to,” he said.
Abandoned, penniless and driven by a desperate need to get off the island, George went in search of a means of escape.
“All I had was my mug and the clothing I stood up in and I never did get back with my squadron,” said George.
“I was young enough to think a lot of it as just an adventure, I wasn’t in despair. I went to find an airfield, aircraft and other RAF folk, I just wanted off the island.”
He found his way to an airfield full of hundreds of airmen. Looking around he found an American aircraft hidden in the jungle. George, by then reunited with squadron member, Len Cooper, worked for days to get the abandoned plane ready and recruited a Canadian pilot to fly it.
By March the Dutch had surrendered, and a group captain gathered the men at the airfield to inform them the Dutch East Indies was now under the control of the Japanese and they were all prisoners of war.
George knew it was time to put their flight plan into action, but it never got off the ground. The plane was sabotaged by a group of men concerned about reprisals.
They had slashed the tyres and sternly told George: “This aeroplane is going nowhere”.
“We had it all arranged, it took us 10 days of hard work. But they said we couldn’t fly away because the Japanese would take revenge on those left behind, which they certainly would have done,” he said.
Determined to get out of there before the Japanese recorded the name and rank of every man at the airfield, he, Len and three Australians jumped the fence.
That night in heavy rain, after walking many miles, they laid their heads down on the top of a hill.
George, who was wearing a gas cape to cover him, was disturbed all night by wriggling next to him, which he blamed on a restless Aussie.
The next morning as he roused, a snake’s head rose up and looked straight at him. George realised a giant seven foot python had been his uninvited night-time companion.
“I held the back of his head and threw him down the hill,” said George.
During their wanderings in the wilderness George came across a Dutchman, his wife and two daughters aged 18 and 19, living in a plantation and they took the five men in for the night.
Gathering outside in the dark for a smoke after a meal, one of the group asked “where’s the tobacco?” and a clear voice repeated from the pitch black beyond, “where’s the tobacco?”. This went on, with sentences they uttered being repeated back to them.
The following day they heard the voice again and inside an old meat safe they found a myna bird. George was very taken with it.
“Honestly, you could have talked to it all day, I would have loved to have got hold of one,” said George.
In time the three Australians decided the situation was hopeless and went back to the camp they had escaped from.
George did not know what had happened to them until 40 years later when he bumped into one of them, Donnie, at a reunion in Sydney in 1982.
It turned out they were put on a boat to Japan, but it was torpedoed and Donnie was the only one of the three who survived.
Now on their own, Len and George got a bit short of food and found “a Chinaman on their side” who agreed to meet up with them at night to give them rice. He warned them there would be a “big sum of money for your heads” if they were picked up by natives and handed in.
After five weeks on the run they decided to make their way back to the Japanese HQ in the village.
They got rid of everything that might give them away, which left George with his mug, shorts and worn-out shoes.
They were quizzed over where they had come from and managed to conceal that they were escapees.
“We would’ve been shot right away, we knew it had happened to other boys who weren’t so clued up,” said George.
He spent a year-and-a-half in Java in two different prisoner of war camps. Nearly every misdemeanour in the camps, no matter how trivial, resulted in the death penalty.
George himself was once subjected to a savage beating by a Korean officer which left him with a broken nose, teeth and fingers.
He had been tasked to lead a party to carry heavy loads of rice and vegetables back to the camp.
As they passed the high fence surrounding a camp holding Dutch women, a twist of tobacco came flying over the top and it was snatched up by others and hidden.
Back at the camp, the tobacco had, unbeknown to George, fallen at his feet and he received a vicious blow with a stick which broke his teeth and damaged his ear drum.
“I wouldn’t say it was mine and he hit me again on the side of the face which nearly knocked my chin out of joint,” said George.
The officer then ordered George to pick up the tobacco and every time he attempted to do so, he received another blow, resulting in a broken nose.
George was then told to place his hands flat on the ground.
“He stepped forward and stood on both my hands, then he jumped on them and broke all my fingers in one go,” said George.
The officer then allowed him to pick up the tobacco and dismissed him.
Battered and bleeding George, who admitted to feeling “a bit rough,” retreated to lie down on the cement floor that was his bed, knowing he would not receive any medical treatment. Two Aussies appeared over him, insisting the tobacco was theirs and went off with it, even though George pointed out that he had “paid the penalty for it”. Ten minutes later another man, who had made it clear to the Australian duo who the tobacco rightly belonged to, came and handed it back to George.
In 1943 George was one of nearly 500 men who were shipped off to Japan. They stopped off in Singapore where they spent three months building an airport runway before resuming their horrendous seven-week voyage on a Glasgow-built ship. There were 492 men, all British, living in squalid conditions in the hold, sharing only one toilet.
George spent more than two years in Japan – the first ten months in a camp before being moved to work in a copper mine.
They worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off every day, handling dynamite with no safety equipment.
“We never had soap or toothpaste or anything like that. Our only food was rice and on Fridays we got the leftovers of the fish soup,” he said.
Asked to describe the cruel treatment meted out by the Japanese officers, George admitted: “It was like nothing on earth. You suffered, everybody suffered, some more than others, a lot never survived.”
George and his wife Bunty visited that copper mine in 2004 during a reunion trip to Japan and were surprised to find it operating as a tourist attraction, with no mention at all that prisoners of war had ever worked there.
They attended a reception held by the mayor of the town who, during a speech, said he couldn’t understand why the men wanted to return.
George told him the reason they came back was to collect their pensions.
“You should have seen his face. He then doubled up with laughter.”
Back in 1945 they “knew something had gone really wrong for the Japanese” when the Americans started food drops.
“There were big tins of jam coming down from the sky and you had to run for your lives in case it hit you on the head,” said George.
Chillingly, the Japanese told the prisoners they would all be “disposed of” on September 26, but they were liberated two weeks before that. They were greeted by a couple of American servicemen who asked: “are you coming out boys?”.
They docked at Southampton weeks later and there was no welcoming party.
“Not a single soul was allowed to be there to meet us and we never knew why. What did we do to deserve that? Absolutely nothing.”
George was sent to Wolverhampton where he was questioned, but all he wanted to do was to get back home.
“My family was told I was missing, believed to be a prisoner of war. After 12 months I was considered to be a dead man, and then in 1945 I walked back in the door,” said George.
George says he counts his blessings every morning and he certainly has made the most of his life.
He remained with the RAF until 1952 and then started a career with British Airways as an engineer, which took him all around the world, including two long-term stints in Holland and Cyprus.
He married Marjory, who passed away in 1992, and had two sons – Donald and Ian – who both live in England. He now has three granddaughters.
Retiring in 1980, George settled in Caithness. He married his second wife Bunty when he was well into his 80s and the couple moved to Beauly seven years ago.
George is “daft about fishing” and also has a passion for bowling, golf and hockey. At the age of 88 he was the oldest hockey player in Britain and played for Scotland’s senior team at tournaments in Hong Kong and Spain.
During the three hours it took George to tell the details of his time as a prisoner of war, he focused on the positive aspects of his experience, telling the funny stories with a twinkle in his eye and mimicking accents – always willing to poke fun at himself. He recounted the darker times, briefly and factually, with dignity and respect, but never with resentment.
George is convinced that what got him through those years was his sense of humour and the close friendship he had with a tight group of seven other British POWs.
They continued to be as “close as brothers” in the decades after the war and they regularly met up at reunions at home and abroad.
“We all had a fine sense of humour, you never lose it,” he said.
“There was eight of us and there is still a few of us left. We had some laughs, really hilarious.”
George added: “It was always a good time when I met up with them.
“We could say anything to each other, we had all been through the same thing.
“You had to be optimistic, a lot of the men gave up and couldn’t take it.
"There are men that don’t talk about it, but I think if you don’t talk about it there is something wrong.”