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Remembering the ‘Forgotten Army' 70 years on

To mark the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, Channel 4 brings extraordinary footage of 'messages home' back to our screens

By Susan Griffin

While the focus was on fighting Hitler in Europe during the Second World War, soldiers fighting in Burma were largely overlooked, becoming known as the 'Forgotten Army'.

Now, however, a one-off documentary to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VJ Day is set to celebrate Britain's 14th Army by revealing unique filmed messages members sent home to their nearest and dearest.

The cinematic scheme - Calling Blighty - was introduced by the Ministry of Defence in a bid to raise morale for troops out in Burma and India, for whom home leave wasn't possible.

Camera crews headed to Asia with around 8,000 men and a few women, filming personal messages for their loved ones, who, back in Britain, were invited to watch them at special cinema screenings.

Many of these poignant films disappeared over the decades, but the discovery of 23 of them in Manchester, along with paperwork identifying the servicemen and names and addresses of relatives, inspired Channel 4's Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army.

The documentary reveals one wonderful love story between Norman Ellor and his future wife, Betty, who met as teenagers and got engaged shortly before he left for Burma.

Footage shows Norman, a gunner, standing bare-chested as he says: "Betty, darling, you've often said in your letters that you'd like to see me. Well here I am. I hope you're there in the front row getting a good eyeful. I love you darling, very much."

Their sons, Steve and Rob, appear in the documentary and reveal a cache of wartime love letters and journals written by their parents.

"She was a lifeline the whole time he was in the Army. She meant everything to him," says Steve. "But I don't think it always went as smoothly as he hoped it might.

"Part way-through, he does start referring to jealousy - 'I trust you darling and I know you'd tell me if anything was wrong.'"

But Norman needn't have worried - Betty was waiting for him when he got home. They wed just 10 days later by special licence and enjoyed a long, happy marriage.

Alma Moore, from Lancashire, remembers watching the Calling Blighty film when she was a small child and spotting her father, Private Frank Miller, on screen.

"I remember when he was in the Army, we all went to the pictures and this reel came on and I said, 'there's daddy, it's daddy'. It was strange, because all I knew of my dad was a picture that my mum had of him in his Army uniform."

For Alma and her son Tony, the Calling Blighty film gives them a clue to a secret about Frank's war service.

Tony says: "We thought my grandad was a member of the Army Catering Corps. They called them 'cabbage mechanics'. But the emblem on his uniform showed that he was in Special Forces."

Further research reveals Frank was a member of the legendary Chindits, an elite unit who fought behind enemy lines in some of the most brutal combat of the war.

Lance Corporal Frank Bramhall, who pops up on film, never told his daughter Michele Simpson, and her children Graham and Joanne, why he'd won a medal. Michele visits his old regiment and discovers he showed great courage, but was haunted by the brutality of war.

Recalling her father's depression, which later became recognised as the condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), she says: "I don't suppose we understood why he'd go off and not speak to any of us. I can remember the pots flying at one stage. I can't blame my mum - if my husband decided he wasn't going to talk for two, three, four weeks at a time, I think I'd be upset."

Ann Alsop, a retired school teacher from Sheffield, never met her father, Corporal John Hartley, who left for Burma when her mother Mildred was pregnant.

When he died, Mildred made the decision to forget him, subsequently changing her daughter's surname to that of her stepfather and throwing away all his photos and letters.

Now in her 70s and a grandmother, Ann comes face-to-face with him for the first time when she sees his Calling Blighty film.

The experience prompts Ann to embark on a journey to discover how her father died. She travels to Burma to visit her father's grave where she tells him: "I'm so sorry that we never knew each other, but you do live on through me and my children and my grandchildren.

"The last few weeks I have got to know so much more about you and what a fine, brave man you were. We're very proud of you. I hope you'd be proud of all of us."

At 92, Ken Chadwick can't help but chuckle when he sees his 21-year-old self on screen, and remarks: "Oooh, I were fatter than I remembered."

The Calling Blighty film crew had caught up with Ken on the bank of the Irrawaddy River in 1944.

"I'm afraid I didn't say a lot. In them days, you weren't used to being filmed or anything like that," says Ken.

"We didn't get much news. Nothing at all that used to come through as regards home. I don't know who called it the 'Forgotten Army', but that's how it turned out."

  • Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army, Channel 4, tomorrow, 8pm

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