“England has now begun the grim Test match against Germany… we do not merely wish to win the Ashes of civilisation. We want to win a lasting peace with honour and prosperity to us all”
Sir Home Gordon
The Cricketer Magazine, Autumn 1939
On 15 August 1945, a truck arrived at the prisoner of war camp at Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Its Japanese occupants delivered a message to the camp commander and, a few minutes later, representatives from each prison hut were summoned to the camp office. Major Ernest (“Jim”) Swanton was in the hut closest to the office and strained to see and hear what was happening.
Swanton had been serving with the Bedfordshire Yeomanry when he was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore exactly three and a half years earlier on 15 February 1942. He, together with thousands of other captured Allied servicemen, was transferred to a network of prison camps along the route of the notorious Burma-Siam railway (the so-called Death Railway). They were set to work on its construction, alongside enslaved civilians and under the brutal control of sadistic Japanese guards. Conditions were horrific; punishment beatings, sickness and starvation rations were part and parcel of daily life. An estimated 90,000 civilians and 16,000 Allied prisoners died in the 17-month period between June 1942 and November 1943. Amongst the dead was Major Gilbert Jose of the Australian Army Medical Corps, who had played two first-class cricket matches for South Australia before becoming a surgeon. He died of dysentery on 27 March 1942. Jim suffered from almost constant dysentery and also had bouts of dengue fever and polio. He lost more than five stones in weight.
Before the war, Jim had worked as a cricket correspondent for the Evening Standard and the BBC. His most treasured possession during his captivity was a well-thumbed copy of the 1939 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Cricket played a crucial role in his survival during those long, brutal years. In his own words, “it was a subject that filled countless hours in pitch-dark huts between sundown and the moment that continued to be known as lights-out. And it inspired many a daydream, contrived often in the most gruesome setting, whereby one combated the present by living either in the future or the past.”
He frequently organised cricket quizzes and talks, including from former professional cricketers, Len Muncer (Middlesex) and D V Hill (Worcestershire). Less frequently, but as often as conditions would allow, he organised matches.
During one such game, at Wampo camp on Christmas Day 1942, a promising young cricketer named Thoy scored a century inside five overs, repeatedly despatching the tennis ball over the prison huts for six. Just over two years later, on New Year’s Day 1945 at Nakom Paton camp, an ‘Ashes Test’ between English and Australian prisoners ended in a thrilling victory to ‘England’ when Captain ‘Fizzer’ Pearson (the only player on either side with boots) sent flying the bamboo stumps of Australian Lt. Colonel E E Dunlop.
In the seven months since that encounter, hopes of an Allied victory in the Far East had grown but so had a fear that, if Japan surrendered, the prisoners would be murdered to prevent their rescue. As he watched his comrades file into the camp office on 15 August 1945, Jim saw them form a circle and bow to the Japanese. This was not out of genuine deference but to avoid an almost certain beating if they did not. A message was read out, first in Japanese and then in English. Jim overheard “Tojo and Churchill now shake hands. War is over”. The Allied representatives turned and rushed out of the office to spread the news. This time they did not bow. The war in the Far East was over and they were free.
Exactly one week later, 22 August 1945, Jim took his first walk in three and a half years as a free man: “we found ourselves in a Thai village on the edge of the jungle. In the little café our hosts politely turned on the English programme. Yes, we were at Old Trafford and a gentleman called Cristofani was getting a hundred.”
The occasion was the fifth and final rubber in a series of ‘Victory Tests’ between English and Australian sides celebrating the end of war in Europe in May 1945. Jim then knew for certain that the “Ashes of civilisation” had finally been won.