Ladies and gentlemen, as we commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second Word War, I just wanted to pay tribute, once again, to the veterans who helped secure an historic victory in South East Asia. Today we remember the appalling losses suffered in the course of defeating Japanese tyranny, but we also give thanks for the courage, resourcefulness and tenacity of the British and Allied Forces in defeating such aggression.
My dear Great Uncle, Lord Mountbatten, used to tell me of the quite atrocious conditions endured by those fighting in Burma – and throughout South East Asia. He told me many other stories too – of his famous soap-box talks to the troops under his command.
They must have had some effect, for in April 1945 he was able to write to my Grandfather, King George VI, that what South East Asia Command did have was something which was lacking at the beginning of 1944, which was morale: once you have that, the same troops, with the same equipment, without any rest or re-training, or even new Commander can beat an enemy twice as strong.
The sheer scale of Allied operations in Burma and South East Asia was quite incredible. The 14th Army, led by the inspirational General Slim, (whom I so well remember when I was much younger telling me stories at dinner in Windsor Castle about his exploits during the Gallipoli campaign where he was so badly wounded) was, at its height, nearly 1 million strong and it remains the largest single Army ever formed in time of war, winning 101 battle honours.
It is so hard for us now, 60 years later, to appreciate fully the extent of what you all endured. Not only was there the brutality of the Japanese to contend with, whether on the battlefield or in the horror of the prison camps, but there was also the additional scourge of sickness, mostly malaria and dysentery which, as Lord Mountbatten reminded the press in August 1944, had claimed close on a quarter of a million casualties amongst Allied Forces since the beginning of that year. And yet, despite all this, so few people seemed to know what heroic tasks you were performing, which must have been profoundly frustrating (but perhaps nothing much changes and our troops today may feel the same . .!)
Again, in 1944, Lord Mountbatten said we do not want a lot of limelight, in fact we do not want any, but I go round and talk to the men in the Command and what worries them is that their wives, their mothers, their daughters, their sweethearts and their sisters don't seem to know that the war they are fighting is important and worthwhile – which, it most assuredly is. It is, of course, perhaps telling that no fewer that 29 VCs were awarded during the campaign - the largest number in any theatre of war.
It is worth recalling that there were so many exceptionally courageous aircrew and sailors supporting our ground forces. Quite simply operations could not have continued without the pivotal support of British and Allied pilots and aircrew, who not only flew thousands of daring re-supply missions in the most appalling weather conditions imaginable, but also defeated a well equipped and highly motivated Japanese Air Force. And, at sea, the Royal Navy fought with distinction alongside other Allied Navies to destroy the Japanese fleets and gain control of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. All of this was achieved while the world focused on the war in Europe, which consumed the lion's share of military resources.
It is also worth recalling that, unlike the war in Europe, our veterans in South East Asia carried out much of the fighting at very close range, spending many months enduring exceptionally harsh conditions in the jungle.
As Patron of the Chindits Old Comrades Association, I have, over the last 25 years or so, gained an insight in to the actions of the remarkable men who operated hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.
It is wonderful to know that this country of ours still produces equally remarkable people whose bravery and tenacity are truly inspiring . . .
Let us not forget today the Prisoners of War who suffered so appallingly at the hands of a ruthless and brutal enemy. Over a quarter of all Allied Far East Prisoners of War lost their lives in captivity. The prisoners, including women and even children, endured severe malnutrition, slave labour, illness and disease, and horrendously inhuman treatment from their captors. Around 12,500 British Prisoners of War perished in those vile camps, but the resolve of the British and Allied Forces was unbreakable.
These 60th Anniversary celebrations and commemorations afford us – particularly my generation, the sons and daughters of those who gave the best part of their young lives to secure freedom in South East Asia – the opportunity to pay our deepest respects to all of you, the veterans and survivors of what must have seemed an interminable and terrible campaign. Above all, we remember all your friends and fellow servicemen and women who never returned and we pray your memories and stories will be passed onto the generations of today and tomorrow so that we can learn from the past. Yours is such a special generation – stoical, loyal, indefatigable and dutiful. You have been the bedrock of this country for all these years and it will not be the same without you. We salute you with all our hearts.