Matt Norman: 1943. 22 September. Night time. A special agent jumps from a plane flying dangerously low above the forested Indre region of Nazi-occupied central France. Her mission? Serve as a courier for British intelligence networks in the region and act as a liaison with the French resistance, who are fighting back against German occupation through acts of sabotage and subterfuge. Her name is Pearl Witherington; code-name Marie.
Despite having parachuted only three times before, Pearl leapt from the plane at the dangerously low height of 300 ft. Incredibly, she managed to land safely, but when she arrived at the designated rendezvous location, it turned out that instead of the 1,000 resistance fighters she expected…there were 10,000. And as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge…Pearl would soon find herself in charge of the entire intelligence network, charged with a monumental task. If she failed, Pearl and the fighters she led could be caught by the Gestapo, tortured, and executed.
You’re listening to On the Record at The National Archives, a show that uncovers the stories hidden in our collections, stories of famous monarchs and spies…and stories of everyday people like you and me.
I’m Matt Norman.
Sarah Castagnetti: And I’m Sarah Castagnetti.
Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history.
We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.
Matt: In this three-part series we’re exploring stories in our collection with the theme of heroic deeds.
As our long-time listeners will know, we like to go beyond the surface level and off the beaten path when it comes to telling the thousands and thousands of stories preserved in our national documents, so in these episodes, you’ll hear about spies parachuting into enemy territories and knights slaying dragons, but you’ll also hear about health inspectors trying to improve the living conditions of poor Londoners and leaders using their skills to organise for change.
Anyone can do something heroic, make the choice to help even when it’s dangerous, or act to challenge injustice. And in this series you’ll hear famous names alongside those of everyday people from history who made a difference.
Sarah: Pearl Witherington was an agent of the SOE. The Special Operations Executive was a secret organisation of the British government that promoted sabotage and subversion in enemy-occupied territories during the Second World War. One of the SOE’s nicknames was the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Though the SOE was incredibly secretive while it was operational, today we have some of their files in our collections, available to our researchers and the public to study.
When it comes to Pearl’s service, we have two personnel files, which hold reports on her training, correspondence, photographs of her, and other documents that give us a sense of what she was up to during her time with the SOE. Incidentally, we also have a file on her husband, Henri, a French man she met in the field and married at the end of the war.
Files like this can hold a lot of information about an individual, but putting the pieces together requires research and a thorough understanding of these types of records. So to help us tell this story, we talked to Juliette Desplat, Head of Modern Collections here at The National Archives.
Juliette Desplat: She was British. She was born in France and she was educated in France as well. So she spoke absolutely perfect French. And at the beginning of the war, she was in Paris working for the British Air Attaché, and she left Paris in December 1940, made her way back to the UK, where she arrived in July 1941. And she started working for the Air Ministry. She was in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and this was all going really well, but she wanted action. And so she volunteered for special service in France, which was quite brave.
So she went through intensive training, parachute jumping, field craft, map reading, security, the whole thing, and the reports held by The National Archives show that she performed very well, even though she was apparently not very good up forward rolls; I can’t blame her. In the reports, she’s described as “probably the best shot male or female we have yet had.” She’s described as “inspiring confidence in others” and having leader’s qualities “despite being a woman.”
Sarah Training went well, and Pearl was given two aliases: a cover story and a field name.
Juliette: Her cover story as Geneviève Touzalin was for her kind of normal life in France. And it was a very comprehensive cover story. I suppose in a modern spy novel, it would be described as a legend. In one of the files there is an A4 sheet covered with the name. So clearly she was practicing being Geneviève Touzalin. And it’s quite interesting to see that because I guess it must be really difficult to get used to answering to another name. Her field name, Marie, was to protect her identity as an agent. And so that’s the name she would use to sign reports sent back to London when she was in France.
Sarah Once her training was complete, Pearl was parachuted into France in 1943. Her circuit was led by Maurice Southgate–code-name: Hector–and her main role was courier, delivering messages from one group to another without being intercepted.
Juliette: So circuits were networks established in France to encourage and aid resistance to the German occupation of the country. But she was also to act as liaison officer with a French Colonel commanding about a thousand men in the maquis.
And so part of her mission was to ensure communications for this group through Hector’s wireless transmitter. So those were her orders of mission, and she’d been briefed for Clermont‐Ferrand, which is the big town in central France, a place she didn’t know at all. But when she got there, there were 10,000 maquisards not 1000. So that was a massive group.
Sarah The maquis were French guerilla resistance fighters. Keeping 1,000 maquisards organised and hidden from the occupying forces was one thing, but coordinating strategy with a group of 10,000 soldiers across five French departments? No small undertaking indeed.
Juliette: Well, first, they were not coordinated at all. You had the Gaullists, you have the Communists. There were political difficulties. And also they didn’t have money, they didn’t have weapons, they didn’t have communications. So that’s why agents such as Pearl or her commanding officer Hector or her husband, Henri, were sent to France to build up communications, to provide equipment and money and food as well because food was quite scarce.
And she was told that she had to make sure that only the strongest would remain and that she had to eliminate all the weaklings. And that was, that was very difficult. But then when she arrived and it was 10,000 people, not 1000 people, she was absolutely horrified and she reported back to London at the time, she said, well listen, there are 10,000 people here.
What shall I do? And she received a brief message back saying, “Thank you for your report.” And that was it. She was not given any instructions.
Sarah: Faced with a daunting task, Pearl rose to the occasion and got to work, making the best of what she had. What else could she do? Give up?
Juliette: So she had to rely on trains, which was obviously very dangerous because Gestapo controls were very frequent. And if she’d been caught, she would most likely have been tortured and then executed. And at some points during the war, there was a reward offered for her capture actually, which I dunno, testifies probably to her efficiency.
Sarah: But things were about to get even more challenging for Pearl. In October 1943, her commanding officer, Hector, travelled to London. This was a dangerous trip, and he wasn’t to return for three months. Hector eventually made it back, but in May 1944, he and his wireless operator were arrested by the Gestapo, leaving Pearl in charge of the circuit. She and the other members were now in great danger of being exposed and arrested.
Juliette: When Hector was arrested, she made very dangerous journeys to warn people that he’d been arrested and that they had to go into hiding, and what she did as well was that she took control of the circuit, and then organised a whole circuit of her own in the Indre department where Chateaux is.
When she organised this maquis group in the Indre, she planned concerted attacks on enemy communications on D-Day. And it wasn’t just that because soon after D-Day on the 11th of June 1944, her group–at the time that was about 40 people, not very well armed and not very well trained either– And her group was attacked by 2000 Germans using artillery and guns. And so luckily there was a communist group not too far, and they joined forces, but the engagement lasted 14 hours. And at the end of those 14 hours, the Germans had lost 86 men and the maquis had lost 24 men. So that shows how well commanded they were and how determined they were as well.
So this attack was successfully repelled, but still her group had been broken up and Pearl had to reorganise everything from scratch. So she rearmed, she reconstituted her maquis and she launched a guerilla actions on a very large scale, wrecking absolute havoc on German columns who were making their way back to the front lines.
So that’s basically the story of Pearl in France. She spent over a year in the field, which is a very long time for an agent to be in the field. And by the end, she had about 2,600 men under her command. And then she was the only woman leading a circuit for SOE.
But it’s an interesting story because she wasn’t, you know, she wasn’t sent to France to be a leader. She was sent to France to act as a courier, as a liaison officer, but from what you can see in the files, she was a very determined person. She had a very…I think she’s been described as having a dominating personality. So she clearly saw, I don’t know, maybe she saw an opportunity to do something because she really wanted action. She had volunteered because she didn’t want to spend the war sitting behind a desk. Or she was pushed by what was described in the files as her very strong sense of duty and loyalty. And, you know, someone had to take charge, and she was there. So she took charge.
Sarah: When she returned to England, Pearl Witherington was recommended for a Military Cross for her service. That recommendation is one of the documents in her file here at The National Archives.
Juliette: And it states, “Throughout her long tour of duty, Flight Officer Witherington showed outstanding devotion to duty and accomplished a most important task, her control over the maquis group, to which she was attached, complicated by political disagreements among the French, was accomplished through her remarkable personality, her courage, steadfastness, and tact.”
And so the recommendation was for a Military Cross, or if it was not possible, Buckmaster–so the SOE Grand Chief–asked that she be appointed as an officer in the Order of the British Empire Military Division.
So that was all very good, but at the time women were not eligible for military decorations. So she got an award, which was an MBE in the civil division, and she was really not happy about it at all, and she turned it down, and there’s a rather powerful letter from Pearl to Vera Atkins in the F section of SOE explaining why she felt she had to turn it down. And she said “The work which I undertook was of a purely military nature in enemy-occupied country…the men have received military decorations; why this discrimination with women when, when they put the best of themselves into their accomplishment of their duties.” And it’s really quite interesting because everyone in the F-Section actually agreed with her. And there was a lot of lobbying. And in the end, in September 1946, the Civilian MBE was changed into a Military MBE. She got what she wanted.
Sarah: After the war, Pearl and Henri moved to Paris, where she worked for the World Bank, and in 1995 she published a memoir about her time as an agent.
But there was still one thing Pearl wanted that she’d never managed to get: her parachute wings. Servicemen were awarded their wings after completing five parachute jumps: four training jumps and one in the field. Because Pearl went into the field after only three training jumps, she never made it to five.
But she never gave up on her wings. When an RAF parachute instructor visited her at her retirement home in France in 2006 to interview her about her service, Pearl argued her case, and finally, at 92, she was awarded her wings, two years before she passed away.
Matt: Our next story is also about a military hero, but one with a very different enemy to defeat than the one that Pearl faced. In fact, this heroic figure is most famous for slaying a dragon.
The 23rd of April each year is St. George’s Day, a national holiday in honour of England’s patron saint, who is usually depicted as a knight alongside the dragon he’s known for slaying. But England is not the only country that celebrates this Saint’s day. Patronage of St. George is actually a global phenomenon. His holiday is observed in 22 other countries, and he serves as patron saint in many countries and regions in Europe, South America, and Africa.
But the “real” St. George wasn’t English. In fact, he never even came to the British Isles.
Euan: So there are lots of stories about the true identity of St. George. It’s very hard to kind of pick out the real St. George from all of these different stories, but the most commonly believed is that he’s from Cappadocia, which is in modern day Turkey, and was a soldier in the Roman army, possibly part of the Imperial guard of Emperor Diocletian.
Matt: This is Euan Roger, Principal Records Specialist on the medieval team here at The National Archives. Euan has been researching our St. George-related records and the story of how he ended up being the patron saint of England and a powerful symbol for the British monarchy.
Euan: In 302, 303 AD Diocletian is ordering that every Christian in the army be arrested and sacrificed to pagan gods, and George refuses to renounce his faith and is eventually martyred. And he’s allegedly buried in Lydda in modern day Israel.
And so there are lots of different versions of the story right across Western Europe and in the Islamic world as well. And he’s really invoked as a saint for a wide variety of things, including disease. So stories about St. George are kind of around in England from the fifth and sixth centuries, but he isn’t one of the most prominent saints around, and he’s certainly not the patron saint of England at this point. And in Europe his story kind of really settles down in a work called The Golden Legend in the 13th century. And this is where the story of the dragon is also standardised. And in that story, a dragon is terrorising a town in modern day Libya with kind of pestilential breath and the townspeople have been giving it sheep to keep it away. When the sheep run out, they draw lots and they start giving the dragon children as well as sheep, and the King’s only daughter is chosen and goes off to be fed to the dragon.
And at this point St. George turns up, offers to save her as she’s going to the dragon, and she kind of protests, but he insists and fights the dragon wounding it, and they take it back to the town. And eventually the townspeople convert to Christianity, and the dragon is killed. Although the stories vary quite a lot in how this all happens.
Matt: This is the version of the story told in The Golden Legend, which Euan mentioned. The Golden Legend was a collection of saints’ biographies written in Latin. It was actually one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages…so popular that over 1,000 medieval manuscripts of this encyclopedia of saints still exist today. Its popularity explains why the dragon version of St. George’s story becomes so widespread.
Euan: So on one hand, we have St. George’s as a martyr early on, but also as a dragon Slayer in different stories, which all become part of this complex narrative. But his cult is really popular around Europe as a model of chivalric tradition. And there is some evidence that his story is promoted by those fighting the crusades when they come back, because he’s particularly popular as a military saint and a saint often invoked in battle.
But again, he’s still not one of the most prominent saints at this point. Edward I–who is probably the first English King to bring St. George into that kind of band of English saints–he begins to display St. George’s banner in battle during his reign, but this was alongside the banners of English native saints. So people who are categorically from England. So St. Edward the Confessor and St. Edmond are the two English native saints at this point.
And St. George really comes to the fore in the 14th century in England. Thanks largely to the efforts of Edward III, who really decides to make St. George the focus of his devotion.
Matt: Edward III reigned from 1327–1377. He was very much a military king, and for a large part of his rule, England and France were fighting the Hundred Years’ War. So a military saint makes sense for Edward. This is also the height of the chivalric age, and one of the things Edward III really wanted to do when he assumed the throne was to establish his own chivalric order. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of chivalric orders, think King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.
Euan: And that’s realised by the foundation of the Order of the Garter, which is dedicated to St. George and features his cross in the order’s arms. And at the same time, he re-founds the Royal Chapel at Windsor, which was formerly dedicated to St. Edward, but is now dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. George, and St. Edward, with George rising in prominence increasingly as the years go by.
Matt: As an aside, the “garter” in Order of the Garter is indeed the strap that goes around your leg to hold up your hose. At the time, it was a part of men’s clothing, but it’s not clear exactly why a garter is chosen as the name for this order dedicated to St. George.
Euan: Interestingly, in a bit of what-if history. This may never have happened because originally Edward III’s plan was to model his order on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And he actually goes so far as to start building his own round table at Windsor before he changes his mind and settles on St. George and the garter. I do wonder whether St. George would have taken off in quite the same way if Edward had stuck with his original plans. It’s quite an interesting thing to think about. In any case a few years later in 1351, we have the first mention of St. George as patron saint of England, particularly in times of war in a grant to St. George’s College. And it really reads to me that Edward III is pushing this idea of something he wants to take forward.
And St. George is really invoked in some of the main battles of the Hundred Years’ War. So at Agincourt, for example, you have people crying out to St. George before the battle in The Chronicles and later on in Shakespeare as well, and across the country, you also see lots of guilds being dedicated to St. George at this time, invoking the saint against various ills, including disease. It’s a really good story to kind of show as bit of pageant as bit of civic display. People like to display these dragons around cities. And at the same time, the English kings are really accumulating relics of St. George to try and strengthen this link and to try and reinforce him as the kind of patron saint of both England and the monarchy.
And one of the biggest gifts on this front is when the future Holy Roman Emperor–Sigismund of Luxembourg–he comes to England in the aftermath of Agincourt to broker a peace treaty, and he presents Henry V with two prestigious gifts. I don’t know if you can guess what they are, but he turns up with the heart of St. George and a very small piece of the saint’s skull. I don’t know quite what Henry V was expecting when Sigismund came across with these gifts, but yeah, it’s made me rethink the gifts I give to people, turning up to give someone a heart of a saint.
Matt: When Sigismund visits, Henry V inducts him into the Order of the Garter. In return, Sigismund inducts Henry into his own chivalric order, which was also dedicated to St. George and called the Order of the Dragon.
Euan: Incidentally, The Order the Dragon is a really interesting take on presenting a Georgian devotion. I don’t have to time to get too much into it now, but it’s also where we get one of the most famous horror characters, because one of those admitted to the order of the dragon–Vlad II of Wallachia–he takes a new honorific surname, “Dracul” to commemorate during the order, which makes his son, the future prince–who has a historic reputation for impaling people–his name is the Son of Dracul, which is Dracula. So it’s a really interesting link between St. George and Dracula.
Matt: Bet you didn’t know that fun fact.
Anyway, back to the definitely real and authentic and totally legitimate thousand-year old heart of St. George that Sigismund gifts Henry. We know about this heart and other Georgian relics thanks to a relic inventory from 1534 in our collection that lists the various bits of St. George collected for the Chapel of St. George at Windsor Castle in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Euan: So by 1534, when we have this surviving inventory in our records, they had a skull set in gold which is garnished with pearl and rich stones with an ostrich feather. They’ve also got part of George’s heart in a monstrance, which is a kind of grand relic. They’ve got an arm of silver. So this is again a mockup of an arm, a silver arm, with part of St. George’s arm bone embedded in it. They have St. George’s dagger. They have another arm, featuring another part of St. George’s arm; what’s described as a little relic; so this may have been two of his fingers, which are mentioned elsewhere. And on top of this, all these relics, the Chapel’s really expanding on a grand scale at this point, by both Edward IV and later by Henry VIII, producing the grand building which is still in Windsor Castle today.
And both Kings really use this opportunity to furnish their chapel with lots of expensive imagery depicting the story of St. George, the dragon, and his martyrdom story throughout the chapel, demonstrating both their own personal devotion to the saint and the kind of the chivalric ideas at the time.
Matt: Another interesting document we have that’s related to St. George and the Chapel at Windsor is an exchequer roll from the reign of Edward IV. An exchequer roll is basically a financial record written onto pieces of parchment, which are sewn together and rolled up. This one is part of a series related to a project Edward IV undertook in the 1470s and 80s to rebuild and enhance St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, including commissioning a pricey new statue of St. George.
Euan: In these accounts, it’s noted that two men, Derek van Grove and Gideo van Castle were paid seven pounds, equivalent to almost 5,000 pounds today, for carving an image of St. George and the Dragon to go in the chapel alongside similar, although–cheaper–images of St. Edward, Jesus on the Cross, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Evangelist.
At this point, he’s very much the key patron saint of England and his feast days, and devotions survive the purges of the reformation in the 16th century and kind of last right the way through to the present day as St. George, the patron saint.
So I think that George’s story is a really complex and malleable one, which changes over time, particularly during times of war and conflict. So you kind of find his story coming out when there’s times of war, times of conflict, but because the stories are so changeable, each country can kind of take different attributes and stories for their own narratives. So the Order of the Dragon that I mentioned earlier, in particular, is interesting in how it kind of flips that devotion to St. George on its head, putting the imagery of the dragon at the forefront. He’s also a character, I think, who obviously features in the national psyche and popular culture of the English right the way through to the present day, in different ways according to the concerns of the age.
So in the First World War, for example, there are these fictional reports from the front line about how St. George and ghostly archers from Agincourt turn up to kind of support the British troops. And again, it’s kind of referring that story back, but reinterpreting it for a new age, and he’s become very much a character who’s different from the real….the “real” St. George in quotes…or at least the character we can piece together from the various stories we have. And that’s exactly why I think what I think Edward III has in mind in the 1340s. St. George is a chivalric figure that at the same time can both be a saintly martyr, the slayer of evil–personified in the dragon–and a military figurehead at all at the same time. You can turn his story in different ways, depending on what you need.
Matt: In a sense, Edward III, Henry V, and Edward the IV’s elevation of St. George is what we might today call “branding”. People use knights and superheroes as mascots and brand-imagery for all kinds of products today when they want people to see their business as strong and dependable. In much the same way, but with an additional spiritual element, Edward III chose to connect the monarchy with a saint who is a military hero and a martyr. The goal was to associate the heroic and saintly deeds of St. George with the monarchy, and almost 700 years later, the Order of the Garter that Edward III founded still survives. In fact, it is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honours system today.
Celebration of St. George’s Day largely fell out of fashion in England in the 18th century, but there’s been a push in the last few decades to revive the tradition.
But that’s not what you want to hear about is it. I’m guessing what you really want to know is what happened to St. George’s relics, the bits of his body dressed up in gold and kept as treasures in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor?
Euan: So unfortunately we don’t know what happened to his heart, his fingers, or the skull set gold after the Reformation. We know that the gold was melted down. We don’t know what happened to those relics, but he still figures really prominently at Windsor Castle, which is the home of both Monarch, the Order of the Garter, and St. George’s Chapel still, and the carving commissioned by Edward IV, however that I spoke about earlier still survives. So if you want to see for yourself, it can be found at Windsor Castle, although it’s now in the college’s own archives.
I actually used to walk past it every day when I was researching there previously, because it’s now been separated from that medieval context. But I still remember the day I realised this was the object I’d been reading about in the kind of parchment rolls here at Kew and actually suddenly realised that’s what that is; this is a very, very old depiction of St. George.
And it has a really interesting afterlife as well, which brings us right up to the present day, because it’s not the only version of van Grove and van Castle’s design. In 1998, the statue of St. George was again reinterpreted this time of a gold version of the statue made to commemorate the 650th anniversary of the college, and by extension, Edward III’s move to make sense, St. George patron saint of England, and the new statue was officially unveiled in 1998 by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. So I think it’s a really nice demonstration of this link between St. George as the personal patron of the Monarch, as well as the country, which goes back centuries.
Sarah: For our final story this episode, let’s travel forward in time again to the Second World War…to a story that takes place at the same time as Pearl Witherington’s…but on the other side of the world. It’s the story of how an ordinary man risked everything to help strangers in need and ended up saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. And despite his heroic actions, it’s a story you’ve probably never heard before. This is the story of a shopkeeper named Boonpong, from Kanchanaburi in Thailand, and his decision to smuggle supplies to Allied prisoners of war suffering in Japanese labour camps.
Let’s set the stage for Boonpong’s wartime actions.
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese launched their infamous attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an attempt to block the U.S. Navy from interfering in their invasion of Southeast Asia. The very next day, Japanese forces entered the Kingdom of Thailand, and after 5 hours of fierce fighting, a ceasefire and an alliance was announced. For Japan, Thailand was a gateway to Burma, Malaya, and –eventually–British India. In order to move soldiers through Thailand, the Japanese began construction on the Burma Railway, which has gone down in history as the Death Railway.
Pad Kumlertsakul: The Thai-Burma Railway was commissioned by Japanese right after they conquered Thailand to supply the Japanese force and ammunition into Burma. So, altogether more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of this Thai-Burma Railway
Sarah: This is Pad Kumlertsakul, an Adviser for Defence, Maritime and Environment here at The National Archives. After learning about Boonpong a few years ago, Pad decided to see if we had any records connected to Boonpong in our collections. This began a larger research project into Boonpong’s story and the prisoner of war camps along the Burma railroad in the Second World War.
More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were forced to work on the railroad. They were mainly from Britain, the Netherlands, and their colonies, as well as Australia, and America. These men were held in POW labor camps along the length of the railroad’s intended path. In each camp, a commandant–usually an officer–was chosen from among the prisoners to manage their men and liaise with the Japanese. One such commander was British Lieutenant Colonel Philip John Denton Toosey.
Pad: Documents about Boonpong at The National Archives are very scant. But, luckily, I found one document of this camp commandant. This document is in the investigation file of the War Crimes Group, which is part of the general headquarters of Allied Force Southeast Asia. This file was relating to the investigation of Malaya and Thailand prisoners of war camps, a report by Lieutenant Colonel Philip John Denton Toosey. The report of Colonel Toosey had shed some light on the living condition of prisoners of war and how he and Boonpong managed to work together behind the Japanese soldiers.
Sarah: Starting with this first source–Toosey’s post-war account of the war crimes he witnessed in Thailand–Pad looked for more information on the story of Boonpong, the Thai shopkeeper turned resistance smuggler that Toosey names in his report. Pad was able to locate relevant oral histories in the collections of the Imperial War Museum as well as from Thai sources, including one from Boonpong’s daughter, who worked alongside her father to smuggle supplies into the camps during the war.
Pad: Boonpong, he was a son of a Thai traditional doctor. He was born on 21st of April, 1906. He was the oldest of seven children. After he was finished the high school, he was working at the Siamese Railway Department for eight years before he resigned to work in the business with his brother. Him and his brother opened a shop named Boonpong and Brother in Kanchanaburi. As a shop owner, Boonpong held a position as a mayor of Kanchanaburi, which is the province where the Imperial Japanese army build the bridge on the River Kwai, where the Thai Burma railway starts.
So, because he was the mayor of Kanchanaburi, his public responsibility brought him into contact with the Japanese troops who were in charge of the building of the Thai-Burma Railway.
Sarah: The Japanese army commissioned Boonpong and his shop to supply food for a number of camps along the railway line in his province. This gave Boonpong access to these camps with very few restrictions.
Pad: Boonpong, at that time, he also worked in secret with a resistance group based in an internment camp in Bangkok. This resistance group was called V Organisation.
According to his daughter’s interview, the firsthand experience that Boonpong had when he went into the prisoner of war camp, had a tremendous impact on him as he saw a lot of chronic and acute condition that the prisoner of war have to endure and maltreatment that the prisoner of war have by their Japanese captors.
Sarah: At about the same time, Colonel Toosey, the camp commandant, was instructed by the Japanese to set up a hospital for the prisoners of war. Conditions in these camps were terrible, and many of the men were dying. But without the prisoners’ labour, construction of the railway would be delayed, so the Japanese needed to keep the Allied troops well enough to work.
Toosey and Boonpong met for the first time in July 1943, when they were introduced by a British army interpreter during one of Boonpong’s visits to Toosey’s camp. Now, Boonpong had access and a contact in the camps.
According to his daughter, Boonpong felt he couldn’t just stand by without helping after seeing the horrible conditions in the camp and the immense need for food and medicine. So he and his daughter began the dangerous work of smuggling these supplies into the camp along with other valuable items like batteries for radios.
Pad: If he’d been caught, he will be shot by Japanese or be tortured by the Japanese.
Sarah: This work put Boonpong and his family at risk in more than one way. Not only would they be in grave danger if they were caught, but Boonpong was also spending a lot of his own money to purchase the supplies, a choice that would leave him in a bad financial situation after the war.
Despite the risk, Boonpong continued to smuggle supplies into POW camps along the railway for the rest of the war, up until the Japanese surrender in September 1945 when the Allied POWs were finally freed.
Pad: The work of Boonpong and his daughter, I think had a tremendous impact on the life of the prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Railway, because it saved the life of… if not thousands, it’s going to be hundreds of prisoners of war. According to Colonel Toosey’s account, the death rate before he met Boonpong is about six deaths per day. So, after he [met] Boonpong, that death rate was reduced to three a week. So, it’s quite a lot.
Sarah: As for the men he helped, they never forgot Boonpong and what he had done for them. And that’s evidenced in the money they raised to solve his financial problems after the war.
Pad: In 1947, Colonel Toosey heard that Boonpong was running a bus company. He got into difficulty, Boonpong got into difficulty. So Colonel Toosey asked his fellow prisoners to contribute the money to help Boonpong. They raised about 40,000. At that time, it’s about 60 or how many years, 70 odd years [ago], I think….to help Boonpong and his bus company… and then later on his bus company becomes successful, and his son runs it, I think, up to 1985, the bus company is still running.
Sarah: Another British POW camp commandant, Colonel Henry Cary Owtram, recommended Boonpong for the prestigious King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, which honors foreign nationals who helped allied efforts during the war. And, in a nice connection to our story on St. George, Boonpong was also made an officer of a Dutch chivalric order, the Order of Orange-Nassau, in honor of the Dutch prisoners of war whose lives he saved. But despite receiving recognition in the form of medals and honors after the war, his heroic actions weren’t well known by the general public during his lifetime.
Pad: He died in January 1982. His story is not very well known until recently, even in Thailand. His work and achievements during the war has become public attention after one of the Thai television channels produced a drama about his life and about his work at that time.
Sarah: But even before the 2013 Thai television drama series generated more wide-spread interest in his story, the soldiers Boonpong had helped were working to keep his memory and legacy of selfless service alive.
This included Colonel Sir Ernest Edward “Weary” Dunlop, one of the most famous Australian veterans of the Second World War. While he was a prisoner of war in Thailand, Dunlop served as the leader of his camp, just like Colonel Toosey. His was one of the camps helped by Boonpong, and he never forgot it. Before the war, Dunlop trained as a surgeon in Australia, and it was through medicine that he found a way to honor Boonpong.
Pad: In 1985, Edward “Weary” Dunlop, in his Anzac Day speech in 1985, he have a tribute to Boonpong and other Thai [people] who helped prisoners of war.
After that in 1986, by the effort of ex-prisoner of war, they have a fellowship funded called the Weary Dunlop Boonpong Exchange Fellowship. This fellowship is for the collaborative program between the Royal Australian College of Surgeons and the Royal College Surgeons of Thailand, to provide the opportunity for Thai surgeons to undertake surgical training in Australia.
Sarah: Dunlop passed away soon after the fellowship was established, but its impact has far outlived him. In 2019, the Weary Dunlop Boonpong Fellowship reached the milestone of 100 Thai medical students sent to Australia on exchange.
Boonpong’s service is also mentioned several times in a 1999 collection of articles by Scottish survivors of Japanese POW camps. And in 2008, a documentary on the legacy of Dunlop and Boonpong was released called The Quiet Lions.
Pad: I think his story inspires us and shows us how normal people can do extraordinary things for other people, to contribute to a major impact.
Sarah: I think it says something that even though he’s not famous, Boonpong’s actions are remembered all over the world by those he helped. Including in Thailand.
Every year, in Boonpong’s hometown of Kanchanaburi, the River Kwai Bridge week memorialises the construction of the bridge at the start of the Death Railway and honors the lives lost. In 2017, the highlight of the week’s programming was a musical that told Boonpong’s story and honoured him as a wartime hero and someone to inspire younger generations.
Sarah: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.
Matt: If you found these stories interesting, check out our past episodes with similar stories:
For more stories about spies, scroll back to our first three episodes, which are packed full of espionage and intelligence agents.
If you’d like to learn about another Asian hero, listen to “Untold Battle of Britain,” where you’ll meet Second World War Sikh fighter pilot, Mahinder Singh Pujji.
For another story of medieval events that shaped England, we recommend “Revolt: The Story of England’s First Protest.”
Sarah: To find out more about the documents discussed in this episode, the history behind them, and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk.
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Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon for Better Lemon Creative Audio.
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