Oldham and the ‘Forgotten Army’

On the 15th of August the UK will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of VJ day, when the Second World War finally came to an end. Although fighting in Europe ceased in May 1945, the war in the South East Asia continued until two atomic bombs, dropped by the allies on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced Japan to surrender.

Amongst our collections Gallery Oldham holds the Oldham Burma Star Association Roll of Honour. This lists the names of local men who gave their lives in the long and bloody battle to defeat the Japanese forces that invaded Malaya in 1941. Following the fall of Singapore in 1942, where 80,000 men were taken prisoner, the Japanese pushed on into Burma. A concerted effort was made to defend India, which became the base for a gruelling fightback through harsh jungle.

Oldham Burma Star Association Roll of Honour

The 14th Army, made up of 24,000 troops from Britain and the Commonwealth, became known as ‘The Forgotten Army’, fighting in a vital theatre of war which has never gained the recognition it deserves. Their commander, General Slim, is reported to have told troops. “When you go home don’t worry about what to tell your loved ones and friends about service in Asia. No one will know where you were, or where it is if you do. You are and will remain The Forgotten Army.”

One reasons so many servicemen and women considered themselves to have been abandoned was the sheer distance from home. This made supply lines and mail deliveries difficult to maintain, which in turn affected morale; particularly as home leave was all but impossible. Aware that many soldiers had not seen their loved ones in years, authorities finally took steps to improve things in 1944. The ‘Calling Blighty’ programme, devised by the Directorate of Army Welfare, gathered groups of service personnel from individual towns and cities together to film short messages home. These were then shown in local cinemas back home to excited friends and family. Each ‘Calling Blighty’ production contained around 25 individual messages. Oldham men and women appear in film 52, which is among those preserved in the NW Film Archive.

In recent weeks we have all come to rely on Teams, Zoom and other social media platforms to hold our world together, so it is fascinating to view these films. We are lucky to have so much connectivity, when it works! And it is sad to think that friends and family in 1944 could only watch excitedly as sons and daughters, husbands and sweethearts appeared on the silver screen like film stars, in venues like the King’s Cinema in Fairbottom Street, Oldham.

The war against Japan took a terrible toll and while we mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day it is important to remember the many thousands who were killed or wounded. Men like William Robert (Bob) Jordan from Brookdale Street, Failsworth. Bob died while attempting to escape from Rangoon Jail on the 1st of March 1944 and received a posthumous Military Medal for his bravery in helping comrades on that day. See more about Bob’s story.

Others, like John (Jack) Booth from Chadderton, came back changed men and carried deep physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives. Jack, who died in 2016, was amongst the thousands taken prisoner following the fall of Singapore. Like so many, he suffered unimaginable hardships. He had both his legs amputated, without anaesthetic, but miraculously survived to become one of only two double-amputees to make it home. He resumed his job in the Co-op, lived to be 97 and continued to campaign for the injured soldiers of the Forgotten Army for the rest of his days. Find out more about John’s story.