Largie Castle, a rifled nest (Excerpt)

Angus Macdonald died twice, once by drowning, after his transport was torpedoed by the Japanese in WW2, and again in the press 10 years later, when a survivor published his version of the tragic event. Years after spending 26 days in a lifeboat, the survivor revealed the cannibalism of others, but admitted only to innocence and authority for himself. Sixty years on, Mary Gladstone revisited the life of her uncle Angus and found it admirable and the survivor’s story questionable. The full story is told in Largie Castle, a rifled nest, to be released by firefallmedia in hardcover March 2, 2017, the 75th anniversary of her uncle’s death. With scant evidence, due to Angus’s restraint & love of solitude, Mary succeeds in this tour de force, of giving her uncle a living place in the British narrative.

Born in a castle, sharing rooms with the pagan Broonie & the Archbishop, and, though a second son, destined to inherit an ancient Scottish name & a large property, influenced by his Crabbe and Lockhart ancestors, trained to be an effective agent of Empire through his classical, sporting education, which included Oxford University, where he rowed, flew, and became a student of history, Angus Macdonald looked forward to a bright future. He joined the Argylls and embarked on a military career that put him on the front line in Malaya, in WW2, as Chief of Staff to various Commanders, where he lived in tents, out-ran tanks in his baby Fiat, and escaped, only to die at sea in uncertain circumstances.

By recreating her uncle’s life, Mary confronts her mother’s distress around his death. Her quest though is like that of her Lockhart ancestor who rode to the crusades with the heart of King Robert the Bruce. In the years after WW2, Largie castle, roofless through neglect, was reduced to a rubble of stones & with it the author’s own sense of self & family. Gaining full understanding, she ends the book with an inspired disquisition on the British Empire, that nicely defines its evolving and layered character.

Angus Macdonald’s second death began with Corporal Walter Gibson and his ghost-written book, The Boat. Following is an abridged excerpt from Mary Gladstone’s book, which goes into fuller detail and explores subsequent events as well:

GIBSON WAS KNOWN for his braggadocio, as a way to compensate for his 98 lbs and small size. Angus measured 6’ 4”, and was from an old Argyllshire family. Gibson was reputed to be ‘a Mossbank boy,’ which meant he’d been to Borstal, a reform school for young offenders. In 1929 Gibson joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders as a piper boy and sailed to China to join the 2nd Battalion. In 1937 Angus joined the 2nd Argylls in India. The two soldiers’ paths crossed, when both served in Malaya. Gibson was employed in the intelligence section, and Angus was adjutant and Chief-of-Staff of the Brigade. They worked closely. When the Japanese invaded on 14 December 1941 Gib- son’s unit fought the length of the peninsula in retreat, hoping to prevent the invaders from capturing the country, especially Singapore island. From the start of hostilities, the Argylls were in continuous action but it wasn’t until the battle of Slim River on 7th January, that they reached breaking-point. Gibson was among 300 officers and men separated from their Battalion and lost in the jungle for six weeks, where they suffered from all manner of privation: many died of malarial attacks, dysentery, ‘jungle sores,’ exposure, starvation, and exhaustion. Others were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Their diet was unrefined tapioca which, when boiled, tasted like potatoes, unripe bananas, and ‘jungle stew’ consisting of bamboo shoots with slugs. They made progress by night, slashing their way through the undergrowth under cover of darkness. The Malays and Tamils were unreliable and would sooner betray them than help.

The other soldiers who reached Port Dickson with Gibson were a fluent speaker of Malay and Chinese, Captain Douglas Broadhurst from the Straits Settlement Police and attached to the Argylls, and Lance Corporal Jock Gray. On February 13th two days before the British surrender in Singapore and the day before Angus departed the island, Gibson and his companions emerged from the jungle six miles north of Port Dickson. Thanks to Broadhurst’s language skills, they acquired a Chinese sampan and sailed it to Sumatra where at Rengat they met Brigadier Paris’s party, which included Angus. By this time, Sergeant Willie or ‘Toorie’ MacDonald, one of the Battalion’s best NCOs and badly wounded at the battle of Dipang, joined them. They reached Padang on 21st February.

Five days later, they and 500 passengers and crew boarded the Rooseboom. After that, we have only Gibson’s account of what happened. In 1949 with the help of a Scottish journalist, Gibson wrote an article infused with heroism, murder, pathos and self-sacrifice about the 26 days he spent on a lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. Shortly afterwards, his dramatic story appeared in The Reader’s Digest and in 1952 on the 10th anniversary of the night when he was cast into the sea, Gibson published a widely-translated book The Boat, about his trials after the Rooseboom sank.

As a 1,000 ton KPM steamer with a crew of Dutch officers and Javanese seamen, the Rooseboom plied coastal runs between Sumatra and Java. During the final week of February 1942, the ship, en route from Batavia to Ceylon, received orders to pick up passengers at Padang. Soldiers of all ranks, officials, policemen, traders, miners, planters, also women and children crammed on to The Rooseboom, which lay perilously low in the water. Departing at dusk the Dutch vessel headed west towards the open sea, looking out for enemy aircraft. After two nights, the Dutch captain told the evacuees that the ship was now out of bombing range and they were relatively safe.

In his book, Gibson introduces some of the passengers, such as Brigadier Paris, Captain Mike Blackwood and Angus. Florid in his praise of the first, he also admires the second whose yacht, he claimed inaccurately, was used by Paris’s party to escape Singapore. Angus, he narrated, was ‘a member of a famous Argyllshire family, heir to a £200,000 estate.’ Gibson also mistakenly states that these officers ‘were involved in hand-to-hand fighting on Singapore island.’

On their 3rd evening at sea, Paris invited the officers to toast their safe arrival in Ceylon expected to be 48 hours later. Within five hours of their celebration at 23 hours 50, the torpedo struck. Gibson was sleeping on deck next to Sergeant Willie Macdonald who was killed instantly. Chaos was immediate, the din deafening: screams, the hiss of escaping steam, the gush of water rushing into the craft and the frantic bellowing of a bullock in the hold. Gibson’s collar-bone was broken and a piece of metal lodged itself in his shin. Within minutes the ship sank, but before it went down the corporal managed to throw himself into the sea and find a chunk of debris to cling onto. Then he saw the lifeboat, the only one out of four on board that the crew managed to launch. It was 28 feet long and 8 feet at its widest part but its bow had a gaping hole which the captain and officers repaired. After letting three women (no children managed to escape the ship) and five wounded on board, 80 survivors including Gibson clambered into the boat, built to hold a maximum of 28. Each person stood shoulder to shoulder with no room to change position or sit down. In the water, their heads bobbing, were more survivors. Most gravitated to the life boat so that it eventually held 135 persons, many of whom remained in the water clinging to the outside of the vessel.

The next morning senior officers took a tally of their food and water; much had floated away as the boat was launched. They had a case of bully beef (48 12 oz tins), two 7 lb tins of fried rice, 48 tins of condensed milk and 6 Bols gin bottles filled with fresh water. Each person received one tablespoonful of water at sun up and a spoonful of milk and water at night. A tin of bully beef was to be shared between 12 people daily. The wife of a Dutch officer produced a tablespoon as a measure and shared out her thirst-quenching tablets.

Paris stood in the boat’s stern and told the evacuees that the captain was in command while he was responsible for discipline. He tried to reassure them, that since the Roose- boom was expected to arrive at Colombo the following day, a search party would soon be sent to find them. He expected they’d be rescued within four days. Paris then ordered each uninjured man to spend four hours a day clinging to a lifeline in the water. On the first day sharks approached but the survivors scared them off by yelling at them. A fish stung a soldier in the water and he died in agony an hour later.

The three women on board were Mrs Nunn, wife of Group Captain R. L. Nunn, director of Public Works in Singapore who, after pushing his wife through the port- hole of his cabin, went down with the ship, the wife of a Dutch officer and Doris Lim, a young Chinese woman who had worked for British Intelligence in North China and escaped from Tientsin before the Japanese occupation. They sat close together surrounded by sweating, groaning Jocks, Cockneys, and Javanese. Half the occupants were 19 to 20 year old conscripts of the 18th Division, sent just before the Japanese invasion to bolster Malaya’s defenses.

Towards dusk, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas of the Indian Army Ordnance Corps swam from a raft floating one hundred yards from the boat. He was at breaking point. With him on the raft was a white woman whose leg had been blown off, lance-corporal Jock Gray, and Angus, who had carried from the ship a flask of what he thought was water but instead was brandy. He had spent the day on the raft drinking from it.

“Angus Macdonald is raving mad,” jabbered Lieutenant-Colon-el Douglas “I had to leave him. He was trying to push me off the raft.” Douglas’s voice rose excitedly, and as darkness fell he shouted one sentence in English, the next in Urdu, in a crazy, high-pitched babble. He struck out wildly. “Put him over before he tips the boat up!” screamed a number of voices. Colonel Douglas struggled as they ejected him, presumably as Angus had. He gripped tightly the gunwale, but they fended him off with an oar. In the blackness, he slipped away, shouting Urdu oaths.

From the second day, hunger, thirst and the cramped conditions began to tell on the survivors. Their skin blistered, especially that of the far-haired Dutch. Many tore off their clothes, dipped them in the sea and put them over their heads to keep cool. All on board were subject to hallucinations. They imagined they saw ships on the horizon. Some had vivid dreams of food, drink, and friendly gatherings. Many of the young drank sea water and those who swallowed a lot fell into a coma and never emerged from it. Gibson gargled with salt water and each morning he cleaned his teeth with it and by the end of the first week he started to drink it in very small quantities. On the third day, some drank their own urine, but it tasted acidic and failed to quench their thirst. Suspicions arose as people disappeared during the night. The following night, they heard screams and shouts, and in the morning 20 people were missing. Then they realized a murder gang was on board. At this time, their rations were cut. A tin of bully beef was shared between 20 and the water ration decreased to one spoonful a day.

At the end of their first week, Brigadier Paris collapsed into a coma and died. Through- out those terrible days, Mike Blackwood had shared his water ration with his superior. The following day Blackwood collapsed and drowned in the bilge water lying at the bottom of the boat. Before his death, Blackwood told Gibson, according to Gibson, that the brigadier wanted to recommend him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal, an award presented to other ranks in the British army for gallantry in the field. At this time one of the engineers stabbed to death the Dutch captain and a number of suicides occurred. Invariably before the individual threw himself into the sea, he tried to grab the rations and fling them over- board as well.

Gibson now took charge of the water bottles, only two were left. The Javanese crew began quietly to take over the boat. All the Dutch officers were gone (either drowned or committed suicide) and all the senior army officers had expired, so Gibson saw to it discipline was maintained on board. On the 7th evening they ran out of water. Just as critical was that the murder gang in the bow became more powerful. The rest of the boat realized they had to kill them, so Gibson led an onslaught on the group and rushed them overboard but not before they killed Drummer Hardie, Colonel Stewart’s batman. Hardie’s courage was legendary. At no time was he ever known to run, not even under threat from the Japanese. Along with Colonel Stewart, Hardie was the last soldier to cross Singapore’s Johore Causeway before the sappers demolished it.

One of the high points on the lifeboat was a cloud-burst which lasted for three minutes. As the rain fell into the boat the survivors knelt down and lapped it up, filling their bottles with water. On another day when a dozen gulls landed on their bows the people pounced and caught seven after which they tore them to pieces and devoured the raw flesh. But the most horrendous occurrence happened on the penultimate day at sea when four crew members (all Javanese) struck repeatedly at the head of a gunner, weakened with thirst and starvation, with a rowlock. Using a tin as a blade they slashed his body, dug their hands into the wound, and extracted chunks of his flesh.

The following morning the survivors saw land. It was Sipora, part of the Mentawis, a chain of islands running north to south 60 miles off the west coast of Sumatra. The living numbered five: Gibson, Doris Lim and three members of the crew although one drowned in the surf trying to reach the shore. As soon as they reached dry land, the non-Europeans quickly disappeared. In 26 days they had drifted 1,000 miles across the Indian ocean and- fetched up 100 miles from the port at Padang. After receiving food and water from the islanders and resting for six weeks, Gibson and Doris Lim were handed over to the Japanese who sent them to a prisoner-of-war camp at Padang. They arrived on May 18th, 79 days after they had set off on board the Rooseboom.

This is Gibson’s story, as we have it. In his book he explains why he was the only white man to survive. Having been a regular soldier in foreign service for 13 years, he was thoroughly acclimatized to the east. When the torpedo struck and Gibson suffered from a broken collarbone, he realized it was a blessing in disguise, because senior officers ordered him not to go into the water but remain in the boat. He adopted a mood of passivity, which helped him save valuable energy and he had a dogged determination to survive. Also, he insisted, his daily ritual of cleaning his teeth with seawater raised his morale.

TUCKED BEHIND St. Giles’ Cathedral off the Royal Mile in the medieval part of Edinburgh is the Court of Session which deals with civil matters. The building is often referred to as Parliament House because, before the Act of Union (1707), it was the seat of the Scottish Parliament. It was to this address that Simon Macdonald on 11th June 1949 presented a petition to determine the death of his older brother Angus. Simon had had to wait until 1949 before he could obtain legal confirmation of that fact. Under an Act of Parliament, a person may be presumed dead if he or she has not been heard of for seven years. In order to inherit the Lockhart property of Lee and Carnwath, left in trust to Angus by Sir Simon Lockhart in 1919, Simon was obliged to go through this legal process.

After a war it was not unusual for relatives of a serviceman killed in action to bring a petition to the courts. But Simon’s plea involved an old Scottish family with a large fortune. Angus’s inheritance of £200,000 in today’s currency amounted to several million pounds. (In late 2015 Angus Macdonald Lockhart, Simon’s eldest son who inherited the Lockhart estate, died and left £18,000,000 in his will). The public benches in the court were filled with journalists, notably a reporter from The Scotsman and Macdonald Daly, a popular Scottish writer and radio (later television) broadcaster. He was also editor of The Scottish Sunday Express. Undeniably, the family fortune drew the hacks who, that day, must have believed that all their Christmases had come together.

Crucial to the hearing was a 35 year old Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders corporal from Paisley: Walter Gardiner Gibson. Ever since January 1946 when the War Office in London sent his statement to the Casualties Department of the Colonial Office, Gibson was known to be the Rooseboom’s sole European survivor. Before the judge, Lord Sorn, Gibson stated that he had served with Angus and together on 26th February 1942 he and Angus embarked at Padang, Sumatra on the SS Rooseboom with others being evacuated to Colombo in Ceylon. On 1st March, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the ship and almost two thirds of the crew and passengers went down with her. In spite of receiving a wound in the head and shoulder Gibson managed to escape from the ship. Only one lifeboat was successfully launched but at least 135 passengers and crew attempted to cram themselves into it.

One of these individuals was Walter Gibson himself. Those who failed crowded around it clinging in the water to its sides. At about midday on 2nd March 1942 a raft with four people on board drifted close to the lifeboat. Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas from the Indian Army Ordnance Corps swam from it to the boat and climbed on board. He stated that the other occupants of the raft were Major Angus Macdonald, another British officer, and a woman. He told them that Angus, “as a result of the heat, thirst and exposure was not in his proper senses”. Lieutenant Colonel Douglas died about 24 hours later and on the morn- ing of the 3rd, the lifeboat occupants saw that the raft, which had remained close to them, was now empty. They assumed that Angus and his companions had died during the night. Gibson stated that, at the end of his 26 days adrift in the lifeboat, only three people and himself had survived the ordeal. Thanking the corporal for his evidence, the judge said,

‘You had a remarkable escape.’ He summed up the hearing by telling the court that he had arrived at the conclusion that Angus had died on the night of 2nd/3rd March 1942.

I would like to have know what was in the mind of 53 year old Gordon MacIntyre (Lord Sorn) when he told Walter Gibson that he had had a remarkable escape. Three generations of MacIntyres, incidentally have entered my life since that date. In the 1970s I knew Bobby, Sorn’s son and in 2013 Gavin, Bobbie’s son, as a student of a course I taught at Edinburgh University. I make this observation because it illustrates how Scotland was, and in many respects still is, a small, largely rooted, cohesive society. Wasn’t there a hint of irony or even of suspicion in Lord Sorn’s comment to Gibson? Perhaps. I’m sure the judge would have at least got wind of the confusion surrounding Gibson’s rank. Writing in January 1946 in response to Gibson’s statement on what happened after the Rooseboom sank, the War Office advised the Enquiries and Casualties Department of the Colonial Office that ‘it is unlikely Gibson will be confirmed in his commission so if you have occasion to write to him he had better be referred to as Corporal!’ The Court petition, however, referred to the Argyll soldier as a sergeant and The Scotsman report on the court proceedings on 13th June 1949 claimed he was a lieutenant.

With the help of Macdonald Daly, Gibson wrote an article about his experience on the lifeboat. Its serialization in late 1949 in The Scottish Sunday Express provoked anger within the Regiment, which prompted General McMillan, Colonel of the Regiment to write on 15th November of that year to Daly stressing that Walter Gibson, a corporal in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders had never been granted a commission either by Lieutenant- Colonel Robertson (one-time commanding officer of The Argylls) or Brigadier Paris. It’s significant that Gibson named these two senior officers and not Colonel Stewart as they were killed in action and were unable to refute the claim. As for the moment, when shortly before his death on the lifeboat, Captain Mike Blackwood allegedly confided to Gibson that Paris was going to recommend him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal, this also could never be verified as both officers died on the boat. In his letter to the newspaper editor General McMillan emphasized that Gibson was discharged from the army as a corporal and that in a War Office missive dated 25th January 1946, AG (Adjutant General) officers categorically refuted his statement that he ever held a commission.

Gibson’s colleagues in the 2nd battalion regarded him more with amusement than with indignation or anger. Major Eric Moss remembered him strolling around the barracks modelling himself on his superior, Lieutenant-Colonel L B Robertson. At the end of the war, Moss was released from captivity. When he reached Rangoon he found Major Gairdner, the Argylls 2nd in command, in hospital. From his bed Gairdner advised Moss that if he saw Corporal Bloody ‘Hoot’ Gibson, wearing two pips on his shoulder, he should get them off him. But Moss never caught up with the Corporal, who was ‘swanning around’ as a 2nd lieutenant. When, after their long voyage home, the released Argyll captives arrived at Southampton and gathered in the transit camp, Moss leafed through a visitors’ book and saw the name, Captain W. G. G. G. Gibson. ‘Every time he promoted himself he added another ‘G’ to his name!’ said Moss. He next heard that someone had seen Gibson in a railway carriage in Glasgow with the MC (Military Cross) ribbon and three pips on his shoulder.

A month after the Japanese interrogated Gibson and Doris Lim in Padang, the former made a journey of 900 miles lasting five days by lorry with 1,600 British, Dutch and Eurasian captives to Medan on the north coast of Sumatra, where they were imprisoned for two years. With Gibson was planter John Hedley, a Johore Volunteer Officer commis- sioned as a lieutenant in HM Forces General Service stationed with 1st Mysore Infantry in Singapore. Hedley confirmed that on arriving in the prisoner of war camp in Padang, Gib- son claimed he was an officer, which aroused the anger of a number of Australian prisoners who gave him ‘a sound drubbing,’ and not the light-hearted play he referred to in his books.

Doubtless the reason for the corporal masquerading as a commissioned officer stemmed from his desire for self-promotion and aggrandizement. Notwithstanding the disrepute officers and men of the battalion held him in, Gibson in the account of his lifeboat expe- riences, strikes a note of megalomania or, as Eric Moss suggested, psychopathology. While testifying in court, however, under oath and chastened by the solemnity of his surround- ings, his responses to questions posed by Counsel and Judge were cryptic and restrained.

Nevertheless, in not needing to expatiate on the occurrences in the boat, the witness gives an incomplete picture of what actually happened. Gibson refers to Lance Corporal Jock Gray as a British officer, which is untrue. Gibson claims that Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas died 24 hours after he clambered on board the lifeboat but, after being pushed off within hours, he died quickly in the dark.

It is understandable that Gibson failed then to divulge Angus’s drunkenness or the volley of oaths Douglas uttered as he fell into the water. Opposite page 16 of the British edition of ‘The Boat,’ however, is a sketch of the author wearing a Glengarry with its double dice pattern around the rim and a large Argyll badge pinned on its side. Gibson holds a pipe to his mouth above which grows a resplendent handlebar moustache. The American edition has a photograph of the soldier in an identical pose. In each, he is mean to be seen as strong, manly, managing, and accomplished. But the way he holds his pipe to the jaunty manner in which he wears his Glengarry, Gibson appears thoroughly theatrical and phoney, in his attempt to impersonate an army officer.

Gibson promoted himself in all circumstances as a leader. In The Boat, he explains how, after Slim River when he accompanied Captain Lapsley in the jungle, the officer appointed him as his right hand man because he read maps so well. On the lifeboat, Colonel Acworth put Gibson in charge of ensuring survivors received the correct measure of rations. Gibson also claimed that Captain Mike Blackwood asked him to help look after the brigadier. At all times, Gibson gives the impression that he is in the centre of things and in charge. He writes that it was he who took over discipline on the boat after the officers died. In his War Office statement, he explained how they collected the rain water on the boat and, as the sole surviving officer, he rationed it out.

Many asked how the corporal survived while all, except three others, did not. His wounds, he admitted. helped prevent him from having to spend time in the water clinging to the side of the boat. In court, he explained that when the torpedo struck he received an injury to his head and shoulder but omitted to mention his other wounds such as his shin damaged by a piece of metal that had lodged in it. This begs the question, that if he had admitted to any more injuries in court, the judge might have asked how he could have survived at all. It’s possible that from the very beginning, Gibson feigned his injuries so that he could receive better treatment on the boat.

When reading Gibson’s account, we learn that the detail in The Scottish Sunday Express and Reader’s Digest articles is fuller than what was revealed in court but the book published in 1952 has much more information in it than the articles.. This points to the fact that the author em- broidered and embellished his story step-by-step from the court testimony to the articles and finally the narrative of The Boat. But memory in general, is usually fuller at the outset of recall. One must take into consideration that Gibson was writing at least seven years after the event took place and after he had experienced unimaginable trauma: a brutal trek through the Malayan jungle, 26 days on the boat, and four days’ interrogation by the Japanese after his capture on Sipora island. His captors flung him in an empty cell without food for three days, punched, pummelled, and forced him to kneel for hours on a block of wood three feet long, four feet wide, and two feet thick. Shortly before the end of the war when Gibson was a passenger on a cargo steamer, the Americans torpedoed his vessel conveying Gibson and other prisoners of war from Sumatra to Thailand.

The Times reviewer wrote that The Boat was ‘sensational on the face of it’ and certainly it played to the lowest possible denominator. Gibson refers to the Japanese as pederasts. In his attitude towards the young Chinese woman, Doris Lim, Gibson is also unabashed. He admits to being attracted to her, “I was seized with a male urge towards the girl as she lay in my arms. I began to fondle her.” “Please let me die in peace,” was her telling rebuff. The reader might well wonder if his approach was as decorous as he described. Among other feats of bashing other occupants over the head and pushing them overboard, he may well have felt entitled to forced sex. Gibson explains that he and others on the boat rushed ‘the murder gang’ off the boat but who is to know which group or person did the killing? And if he was in charge of the rations, who could stop him from grabbing them for himself? It’s my guess that if he established himself as alpha male, the woman had no other option but to submit. In such circumstances, it’s not the virtuous but the most ruthless who survive. When members of the Javanese crew on the boat, slashed a dying soldier and plunged their hands into the wound and drew out some flesh, which they ate, who’s to know if Gibson also joined in? If the Javanese were the wolves, Gibson may well have been the hyena. Even his peers in the Battalion suggest he was capable of such an act. “Do you know,” suggested Eric Moss, “what most of us think happened to that wee Chinese girl who was in the boat with Gibson. We think he ate her! “ As the saying goes, many a true word is said in jest.

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