Col. Freddie Spencer Chapman (L 21-26)


The Cloisters are a memorial to those from Sedbergh School who gave their lives for their country in the two world wars. This Sunday we will honour their memory.

However, there were many others from Sedbergh School who fought in these conflicts and who suffered life lasting physical and psychological injuries as a result of their wartime experiences. Many also demonstrated great bravery and heroism in face of the enemy.

One such person was Freddie Spencer Chapman, an old Luptonian. His mother had died shortly after his birth and his father was killed at the Battle of the Somme. As a result, he was brought up by an elderly clergyman and his wife in the village of Cartmel, on the edge of the Lake District. It was here that Freddie developed an early interest in nature and the outdoors.

Freddie came to Sedbergh when he was 14 years old. He did not excel as he loathed the rigours and routine of school life. Fortunately, the then Headmaster, whom Chapman described as wise and sympathetic, excused Freddie from having to participate in organised sports as long as he did not waste his time. Freddie used the time to explore the surrounds of Sedbergh on foot.

This latitude did him good, winning a Kitchener scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1926. It was there that he developed his passion for adventure.

In the 30’s Freddie joined a number of expeditions. In the Greenland expedition of 1932–33 he experienced cold of such intensity that he lost all his finger and toenails. He spent 20 hours in a storm at sea in his kayak and on another occasion fell into a deep crevasse.

In 1936 he joined a Himalayan climbing expedition. There, he was able to indulge his fondness for photography and his interest in nature. He, along with Sherpa Passang Dawa Lama, became the first mountaineers to climb the holy mountain Chomolhari. This mountain, with a 7314 m high peak, would not be climbed again until 1970.

In 1938 Freddie taught at Gordonstoun School. However, war was looming and he was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders as a lieutenant on 6 June 1939. He was subsequently chosen to train Australian and New Zealand forces in guerrilla warfare. During the Japanese invasion of Singapore the then Captain Chapman took part in an undercover raid across the Perak river in support of Rose force.

Unfortunately, military leaders and strategists would not allow preparations to be made in the event that Singapore fell, believing such a scenario was impossible. Following the Japanese invasion Captain Chapman formed a previously planned commando group as a stay behind party made up of sympathetic guerillas from Malay, Chinese, and Indian volunteers.

During the next three years Freddie conducted a guerilla war behind enemy lines. As he says, “three of us managed to wreck seven trains, to cut the railway in about 60 places including demolishing 15 bridges, and to damage or destroy 40 motor vehicles”.

He was captured twice. First by Chinese marauders who confiscated weapons and held him as prisoner. On the night of May 10, 1944, Freddie doped his guards using a lethal dose of morphia in their cups of coffee. Having escaped he inadvertently walked into a Japanese camp and became surrounded by hundreds of soldiers. However, that evening he managed to evade the sentries and escape. For the next six days he raced barefoot to confuse trackers.

The Japanese were not the only enemy. The jungle was a source of debilitating injury and illness. As a result Freddie suffered from lingering sickness and at one point spent two weeks in a semi-coma, suffering from tick-typhus, Blackwater fever, and pneumonia; and added to this the effects of chronic malaria. However he was determined to fight on, attributing his survival to the basic rule that “the jungle is neutral” (subsequently the title of one of his books) in that one should view the surroundings as neither good nor bad. The role of a survivalist is to expect nothing except the dangers and bounties of the jungle as of a natural course.

Communication with the outside world was poor. Much of what Freddie learnt about the status of Europe, Burma, and Australia was through falsified Japanese propaganda. This must have added to his sense of isolation and yet he had the strength of mind and resilience to carry on.

On May 13, 1945 Freddie was picked up by the submarine HMS Statesman and taken to Ceylon. By this time he was “missing, presumed dead”.

Colonel Freddy Spencer Chapman, DSO and Bar, and his wife Faith.
Freddie and his wife, Faith.

Freddie was promoted to Colonel Chapman and was appointed to the Distinguished Service Order. A Bar followed in 1946. Field Marshal Earl Wavell wrote “Col Chapman has never received the publicity and fame that were his predecessor’s lot (referring to TE Lawrence); but for sheer courage and endurance, physical and mental, the two men stand together as that of examples of what toughness the body will find, if the spirit within it is tough; and as very worthy representatives of our national capacity for individual enterprise, which it is hoped that even the modern craze for regulating our lives in every detail will never stifle.”

Freddie Spencer Chapman was an extraordinary man and led an extraordinary life, although he himself still felt unfulfilled. He exemplified the Spirit of Sedbergh, mental toughness and resilience combined with a clear sense of duty and adventure. He said that the state of mind was of the utmost importance to ensure that the physical health of body and the will to live were reinforced on a daily basis.

This is as true today as it was then.

Jan van der Velde
Chairman, OS Club