Captain Tom’s War – ITV, and VE Day: the People’s Celebration – BBC 1

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Two excellent programmes, both shown on the 75th anniversary of VE Day.  The Burma campaign during the Second World War, involving a vast number of men from Britain, India, East Africa and West Africa, has always been strangely overlooked; and I understand that that’s why Captain Tom Moore, who’s become a national hero thanks to his fundraising efforts during the current crisis, agreed to make this programme with ITV.  It was a fascinating account of riding motorbikes though the jungle, coping with monsoons, snakes and gigantic spiders, dealing with malaria and dengue fever, and the fear of ending up in one of the notorious POW camps.  We were also shown footage of Vera Lynn’s visit there, and told what it meant to the troops to see a pretty girl, hear her lovely voice, and know that they hadn’t been forgotten.

Over on the BBC, the VE Day celebration programme nearly had me in tears several times, as we were treated to socially distanced music from the grounds of Buckingham Palace and from an empty Royal Albert Hall, and saw veterans receive video calls from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and a number of celebrities.   I think that my three favourite video calls were those with a man who’d just turned 100, and was linked up by video to his relatives in Australia, a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary, and a lady finally being presented (from a distance!) with her wartime medal, with Scottish pipers playing in the background.

This wasn’t how we’d expected the 75th anniversary of VE Day to be, but well done to both ITV and the BBC for helping to make this a special evening – culminating in the address by the Queen.  Nice to see William and Kate involved, and Charles and Camilla earlier in the day.  The Royal Family are doing a sterling job during this crisis, insofar as they can.  And, whilst I’ve got mixed views on some of the media reaction to the coronavirus situation, all aspects of the media did a superb job as far as “VE Day 75” was concerned.  Well, apart from the Guardian, which doesn’t think that the defeat of the Nazism should be commemorated or that those who fought for freedom should be honoured, but that sort of attitude is best ignored.  Well done to both ITV and the BBC, and also to Sky News for their excellent coverage throughout the day.

Going back to the programme about Captain Tom Moore, it really was fascinating.  It’s strange that the Burma campaign’s so overlooked, especially given the involvement of Lord Mountbatten, and also Orde Wingate, who’s quite well-known in his own way, and Viscount Slim.  But it is.  We heard how the young Tom Moore from Keighley, aged only 20, played a vital part due to his pre-war position as an engineering apprentice, in Burma and later back in Britain.

At a time when few people could drive, he was heavily involved in training his comrades, both British and Indian, to drive tanks.  Motorbikes were crucial too … you don’t particularly associate motorbikes with the Second World War (I do wish people would use the proper expression, rather than “World War II !), but they were used for delivering dispatches, and, and I never knew this, were vital in combat because the Japanese tended to mount attacks at night, when tanks couldn’t be used because of visibility issues.  The Fourteenth Army had to park their tanks about seven miles from the front, and send everyone in by bike!

And the conditions.  Talk about “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum”.  The heat, and the humidity, and the long monsoon season.  Trekking across the jungle.  Poisonous snakes and spiders. All the time, the fear of being taken prisoner, and being sent to one of those horrific POW camps.  Captain Tom contracted dengue fever, and, at one point, up to 12,500 men per day were having to be taken out of the actual combat force due to malaria.  In 1943, 120 men were falling sick, many not to recover, per every one battle casualty.  You associate those sorts of figures with far earlier wars.  I honestly never realised just how bad it was.  We just hear so little about the Burma campaign.

I’m so pleased that the wonderful Captain Tom agreed to take part in this programme, and hope that it might raise the profile of the campaign, for the sake of all those brave men who fought in those terrible conditions.  It was wonderful to see him, and to see the veterans involved in the BBC programme too.  There should have been parades and other events all over this country and in so many other countries across the world, to honour them and mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism.  It wasn’t to be, but many of us marked it in our own ways, and watching these two programmes was a big part of that.