Eighty years after his death in a Japanese prison camp, this compelling new biography charts the career of a distinguished but hitherto neglected hero of the British army.
Major-General Merton Beckwith-Smith DSO, MC commanded the British 18th Division during the catastrophic Fall of Singapore in February 1942. A highly respected and much decorated veteran of the First World War, he was captured along with tens of thousands of other soldiers – British, Indian, Australian, and Malay – who were then held prisoner on Singapore Island.
Amidst hunger, disease and widespread despair in Changi, over the next six months he rallied the spirits of his soldiers, created a make-shift university and theatre, and helped to inspire a remarkable renewal of collective church life. At the same time, he improved conditions for hospital patients and encouraged sports and other recreations.
While the fate of many of the men he led was to toil, and often die, on the infamous Burma Railway, Beckwith-Smith was exiled to Karenko Camp, Formosa (present-day Taiwan), where, mistreated and malnourished, he died of diphtheria and heart failure on 11 November 1942.
Beckwith-Smith, was the most senior British officer to end his life as a prisoner of war in the Far East. Yet until now he has been a strangely forgotten warrior. Based on exclusive access to family archives, and drawing on an array of other eye-witness accounts, Michael Snape’s richly detailed biography brings to an end that neglect. The result is a story that offers vivid insights into one man’s experience of two world wars, while also revealing why he was so admired by his fellow officers and by the ordinary soldiers who served under him.