Bastard Behind The Lines by Tom Gilling

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Until I read Tom Gilling’s book, I had never heard of a soldier called Jock McLaren, a soldier who seems to have become a casualty of history. Only a very driven man could escape from two Japanese-held prisons during World War 2 and then carry the fight with guerrilla contingents after that. To want to continue the fight though weakened by tropical diseases and years of stress is remarkable.

I am particularly impressed by authors who ‘lay their cards on the table’ early. Tom Gilling tells us that the story of Captain R K McLaren is one of the most astonishing of the Second World War. But he also alerts us that McLaren’s story may be as much bravado as fact. A book called One-Man War by Hal Richardson precedes this one by many years but relies solely on Jock McLaren’s notes and recollections. Some of these are questionable. The claim that McLaren fought in the First World War is hard to support as the man was born too late to have been of age, no matter how much entry requirements to join the armed services were waived. Despite a bit of bravado, the story of McLaren, as Gilling has distilled it, makes interesting reading.

McLaren and his fellow servicemen had a very rough deal when the Japanese war machine rolled over Singapore. Gilling tells of the capture of the Australian armed forces and describes with conviction many of the hardships the defeated soldiers endured. McLaren is written large in this part of the book and we obtain a firm understanding of the man through Gilling’s writing. We learn also that Changi was not as bad a place as the popular press has described it. One soldier, who was imprisoned at Changi in the early days recalled that there was “no scraping and bowing, no lashing and no interference whatever” (19). At the same time the Kempei-Tei was suppressing, with utter ruthlessness, all signs of anti-Japanese activity outside the camp. Gilling tells much of the Australians’ transit from Changi to Sandakan by focusing his narrative on McLaren.

Having said that, I want to point out that a serious weakness is beginning to make itself felt. We witness a lot of ‘general’ World War 2 history. We read about Singapore and its environs, about Berhala Island, and the fate of the Sandakan commandant and his interpreter. At this point in the book, the generalities are balanced by an equal role given to the subject of the book. It is McLaren’s biography after all.

At around about the beginning of Chapter 3 on page 34, the character of the book begins to change. Other soldiers of various ranks begin to take up space. Their stories, or their place in the prisoner-of-war profile, grow in volume alongside McLaren. As the book goes on, it loses its way. Until page 114 the book resembles a history of South-East Asia in wartime. McLaren still has his moments, but he has to compete with a writer bent on ‘telling it all’. Nevertheless, he does not disappear entirely, and his exploits make fascinating reading. By Chapter 9, the focus is again where, in a biography, it is supposed to be.

Gilling begins at this point to write a comprehensive treatise. McLaren’s interactions with the Japanese, his clever avoidance of enemy troops, and his eventual finding of his way back to the Allied side, make fine reading. We know that Jock McLaren’s war is not over yet and we follow his life with absorbing interest. McLaren was one of the great characters who populated the Australian Army in war time. It is a disquieting thought that a man who earned the gratitude of his Government and garnered high praise for his exploits, could be killed by something so prosaic as a falling tree on his very own property in peace-time.

Great work, Tom Gilling, you have produced a biography well worth reading. One final however, however…why the book title when Bastard was, in fact, the name of McLaren’s boat?

Bastard Behind the Lines

(2021)

By Tom Gilling

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76087-587-9

$29.99; 256pp

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