‘We are actually at war!’
on 8 December. 1941, Capt Tom Smiley, RAMC, was working at the Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore. Just months before, he had got engaged to fiancee Elizabeth Mills, then boarded for his posting in the the Far East.
The night after the first bombs rained down on Singapore he penned one of several letters to Elizabeth, who herself was studying to be a doctor.
‘We are actually at war!’ Smiley wrote to her. ‘I've been in a genuine air raid and treated casualties. I got such a shock at 4am this morning when I wakened and heard planes overhead and saw flashes of the gunfire and the bombs. I don't believe anyone in Malaya expected such a thing last night. Last night I was feeling that war would never come to Malaya. Now that it has come I'm glad as it will be over sooner than later and I'll get home to you!
'We haven't started too well I’m afraid but that is always the way with us British, isn't it? I've been terribly busy today and I expect to be very much busier tomorrow.'
Sadly he would be frightfully busy for the next four years, performing in atrocious conditions as a POW. To say nothing of the fact that he was a central figure and heroic survivor of what became known as the Alexandra Hospital Massacres of February 1942.
He survived, and -- within weeks of arriving back in the UK -- they married.
I'm having trouble bridging the gap in my mind of being in a state of war and having to describe that feeling to my partner, thousands of miles away. His optimism for the war to be over in a flash once it kicked off was rather misplaced.
(Photos courtesy of Fiona Smiley)
[Capt Smiley's letters to Elizabeth were shared with me by his daughter, Fiona Smiley. They were raw and romantic and revealing, taking us into the very flesh and blood of this medic captain, who had his own grave doubts for his security and the future of the war, yet was a source of amazing strength and succour to those he treated in the hospital and camps. More of his story can be read in A Bleeding Slaughterhouse and The Missing Years and The Depths of December.]