Saturday, 3 January 2009


When one catches the glint of a surgeon’s knife a role model comes in handy. I’m reminded of mine by a small wooden toy piper. It belonged to a dead Royal Marine called “Cockie” Warren. Or, to introduce him formally, Colonel Alan Ferguson Warren, CBE, DSC, a pre-war adjutant at the stone frigate at Chatham,Fleet Air Arm pilot with the China Sqdn and an enthusiatic pirate hunter, liaison officer with all the para-military underground forces in Malaya before the fall of Singapore, C.O of 42 Commando and a Deputy Adjutant General of the Royal Marines.


None of those offices were responsible for me refusing his invitation to call him Alan. To me – an officer hater from way back – he will always be The Colonel. And I count it the greatest honour of my life that I was with him when he died of the cancer he collected in a Jap POW camp. When he said he wished I had been with him in the camps I nearly fainted from pride.


The last time we met he was in agony in a hospital in Lymington and a few hours earlier he had tried to speak. I had to lean over him to hear what he was saying. It was: “Have you been offered something to drink?”


I met him when I was researching a book about the escape from Singapore after it fell to the Japanese of my oldest friend Lord Langford, another Colonel as it happens. The Colonel had given up his place in a dhow he had bought to escape across the Bay of Bengal to Langford, who was anxious to trace him and thank him. I brought them together and said I would be honoured to write a book about Warren. He said: “You will have to hurry up. I have come back to the UK to die. You have got a year.”


It was a fascinating book. Tiring of his job at Chatham, Warren, the first Royal Marine to pass from the Staff College, transferred to the Fleet Air Arm and spent the closing years of peace hunting pirates on HMS Hood with the China Squadron. When the war came, he was serving with Military Intelligence and volunteered to go into occupied France after Dunkirk to look for any stragglers. The submarine which was to take him off failed to appear so he stole a dinghy and rowed it back to England.


In Malaya he organised a bombing school, inserted parties, led by Spenser Chapman, behind the lines and then frequently visited them in his motor launch. Another legend, Angus Rose, who led a guerrilla band, said of him, ”He was incredibly ubiquitous, a master of time and space. He was fearless, but too intelligent to be foolhardy. In manner he was upright, downright and straightforward and in appearance he was hard, handsome and immaculate.”


Spenser Chapman, recalling a mission behind the enemy lines with Warren, said: “It was an ideal way of going to war, in a jeep piled high with tommy guns, plastic explosives, and I felt so like a crusader that when we passed a wayside Chinese temple I almost suggested we should have our tommy guns blessed.”


Warren took on mammoth tasks including organising the evacuation of Penang Island and the destruction of military stores in the face of the oncoming Japs. Earlier he had organised an escape route across Sumatra, along which thousands of troops fled when Singapore fell. The route went overland to Padang on the east coast and thence by sea either to Australia or Colombo.


When he arrived in Padang to make his own escape, he was shocked that no senior officer was prepared to stay to look after the troops, whose immoral behaviour towards the citizens of Sumatra was alienating the Dutch government. He gave up his place in the boat and issued an order that he would personally shoot any serviceman disobeying him.


When the Japanese came, although there was a price on his head, he officially surrendered the British army to them. In the three and a half years that followed, he commanded British slave camps on the Burma-Siam railway. Had the Kemptai discovered his identity he would have been shot. There had been a price on his head since the early days in Malaya.


An Australian surgeon Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, who became known as the Christ of the Burma Railway, wrote to me of Warren. He said: “His was a life of a man who at the crucial point turned his back on what he was supremely equipped to be, a highly successful soldier, and chose instead the gesture of compassion towards the wounded and battered debris in Sumatra.”


When the Colonel left the army he worked as an English teacher at Flint Hills, a private school in the United States. A pupil wrote this tribute:


“Colonel Warren’s leaving Flint Hills marks the end of an era. He is Flint Hills’ Mr Chips. With his grey hair carefully groomed, his white moustache well clipped, he is the epitome of the English military gentleman. …those students who have been fortunate enough to have him as a teacher know there will never be anyone who can take his place.”


The Colonel bought the little wooden piper in New York and gave it to me shortly before he died. I can still see him crossing the car park to the cancer clinic. He marched as though military bands were playing in his head.

That is why the little piper always marches at my side.