Freddie Spencer Chapman

Freddie Spencer Chapman

Frederick Spencer Chapman, DSO (10 May 19078 August 1971) was a British Army officer and World War II veteran, most famous for his exploits behind enemy lines in Japanese occupied Malaya.

Family and education

Chapman's mother, Winifred Ormond, died shortly after his birth in London. His father, Frank Spencer Chapman, was killed at the battle of the Somme. Freddie (or sometimes Freddy as he was to become known) and his older brother, Robert, were cared for by an elderly clergyman and his wife in the village of Cartmel, on the edge the Lake District. He was schooled at Sedbergh before studying at Cambridge, but did not excel in any of his chosen subjects. In 1946 he married Faith Townson and had three children: Nicholas, Stephen and Christopher.


Chapman was attached as "ski expert and naturalist" to Gino Watkins' 1930-31 British Arctic Air-Route Expedition and a subsequent Greenland Expedition in 32–33. His happiest years. He experienced cold of such intensity that he lost all his finger and toe nails. He spent twenty hours in a storm at sea in his kayak, fell into a deep crevasse, saving himself by holding onto the handles of his dog sled. He emerged in the Greenland expeditions, of very tough characters, to be amongst the toughest. He led a three man team across the desolate Greenland ice-cap. The first European since Nansen. He was fluent in Innuit and an able Innuit Kayaker and dog sledger.

In between the Greenland Expeditions he took part in the Fell run. 130 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing, his time of 25 hours was not however a record.

It was clear that Gino Watkins moulded an extraordinary esprit de corps in his expeditions, and the expedition members were a strange mixture of MI officers, hard nuts, and rather fay Cambridge misfits. Many of the members would go on to absolutely extraordinary things in the war. Spencer Chapman probably the most extraordinary, but Martin Lindsay (7th Armoured division) was no slouch. They were all certainly connected to Augustine Courtauld who was a fellow expedition member and many of them spent time in MI. There is an argument that the system of command that gave us The Somme was challenged. Systems of group strength were to be tried in the Everest expeditions after the First World War. That the mountaineers development of having a leader, who led, and that being on a fluid basis dependent on ability for the days task. This being a much less formal system than the British Army had experienced previously. It should be noted that all of the large Arctic and Antarctic expeditions prior to the Greenland adventures were military led. So these men at the beginning of the war were tough, experienced in adversity and extreme conditions, were MI connected, and connected to the corridors of power via the Courtaulds. Maybe the truly extraordinary thing about Spencer Chapman was (despite the above) his apparent humble love of people on the fringes of existence and of birds and bees and flowers.

In 1935 he went to Lapland, and had "an exciting" expedition on skis and with a reindeer called Isaac.

Early in 1936 he joined a Himalayan climbing expedition. He was not only a keen mountaineer but studied the history of mountaineering, Dr Kellas being amongst his heroes. He enjoyed his difficult climbs and achieved peaks and met Basil Gould, the Political Officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould invited Spencer to be his private secretary on his politicial mission from July 1936 to February 1937 to persuade the Panchen Lama to return from China and establish permanent British representation in Lhasa. Spencer struggled to learn Tibetan, learning it well enough to converse. He was involved in cypher work, kept a meteorological log, pressed six hundred plants, dried seeds, made notes on bird life. He kept a diary of "events" in Lhasa and took many photographs [] that were sent to India on a weekly basis. He was allowed to wander and did so in an unshepherded way into the middle of Tibet and around the Holy City.

After his return from Lhasa, Chapman obtained permission to lead a five-man expedition from Sikkim to the holy mountain Chomolhari, which the British group had passed on the way from Sikkim to Tibet in July 1936. Chapman and Sherpa Passang Dawa Lama succeeded to become the first mountaineers to ascent the 7314 m high peak, which they finally reached from the Bhutanese side after finding the route from the Tibetan side impassable. The mountain would not be climbed again until 1970.

In 1938 Spencer taught at Gordonstoun School where Prince Philip was one of his pupils


Commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders, Chapman's love of the outdoor life and adventure lead to him being chosen for a mission in Australia. That mission was to train Australian and New Zealand forces in guerrilla warfare and eventually to join what was then Special Training School 101 (STS-101) in Singapore. This school had as one of its main objects the organisation of parties to stay behind in areas the Japanese might overrun. In August 1941 a plan for stay-behind parties that would include local Indians, Chinese and Malays was proposed, but this was rejected by the British colonial governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, as extravagant and defeatist.

During the Japanese invasion the then Captain Chapman took part in an undercover raid across the Perak River in support of Rose Force. During the mission Chapman noticed how lightly equipped the Japanese soldiers were in contrast to the heavy kit of the British and Indian forces.

Throughout the war Chapman remained a thorn in the Japanese side, accounting for no less that seven trains, fifteen bridges and forty motor vehicles and the killing of some hundreds of Japanese troops in a short period of time at the beginning of Japanese occupation.

In early 1942, he ran out of supplies hidden for stay behind parties like his team. Freddie and his team tried then to escape from Malaya, but had to hide from the Japanese in the Malayan jungle with help of the Malayan Chinese Communists led by Chin Peng who lived in guerrilla camps in the jungle waging war with the Japanese as a consequence of the Rape of Nanking. However, due to the bad conditions in the jungle and also due to Japanese attacks, he gradually lost all his team members through disease and gunfire and was completely cut off. For more than one and a half years, he had to live in jungle camps with Chinese Communist Guerrillas and travel long distances through dense and difficult jungles often suffering high fevers, caused by malaria.

In late 1943 he could finally re-establish contact with the British. Two other Britons joined him from Force 136. On a search-mission in the jungle for another stay-behind-Briton, Freddie was captured by the Japanese but managed to escape into Jungle in the dead of night despite being surrounded by Japanese soldiers who were fast asleep. Due to continued Japanese attacks, he and the two members of Force 136, John Davis and Richard Broome were isolated again among the Communist Guerrillas until early 1945. During that time, they had to fight against diseases of the jungle, namely, malaria, beriberi, dysentery and skin-ulcers from leech bites. Finally they with the help of the Malayan Chinese Communists managed to repair their radio equipment with spare-parts collected by the Communist Guerrillas (the military wing of this being the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army) and could contact their headquarters in Colombo and organise reinforcements and supplies via parachute-drops into the jungle. Subsequently, they could support liaison of the British with the Malayan Chinese Communist Guerrillas and managed to escape from occupied Malaya in a British mini-submarine after a remarkable trek from the mainland jungle to the island Pulau Pangkor off the west coast disguised as Chinese labourers.

He was twice wounded, once in the leg by a steel nut from a homemade cartridge and once in the arm; was captured both by Japanese troops and by Chinese bandits and escaped from both. He suffered in the jungle. Once he was seventeen days unconscious, suffered from tick-typhus, blackwater fever and pneumonia. Chronic Malaria being the worst of it. He walked bare foot for six days leaving his boots behind to fool his Japanese guards.

However much he suffered in the Malayan jungle, he attributed his survival to the basic rule that 'the jungle is neutral'. By this description he meant that one should view the surroundings as neither good or bad but neutral. The role of a survivalist is to expect nothing and accept the dangers and bounties of the jungle as of a natural course. Hence, one's steady 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.

Field Marshall Earl Wavell wrote "Colonel Chapman has never received the publicity and fame that were his predecessor's lot [referring to T.E.Lawrence] ; but for sheer courage and endurance, physical and mental, the two men stand together as 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."


After the war Spencer-Chapman was asked to form a School in Germany for the sons and daughters of British Forces and Control Commission Civilians resident in the British Zone of occupied Germany. This School, the King Alfred School for children 11 to 18 years of age, used the German naval establishment at Plőn in Schleswig-Holstein where Admiral Doenitz had resided during the last days of WWII. Freddie, as Headmaster, set up the school, organised the teachers, arranged for the alterations to accept both boys and girls, and then in one day in 1948 accepted 400 young boys and girls into what was possibly the first successful comprehensive, co-educational boarding school in the World. His dynamism and understanding of the requirements of young people were the guiding influence in setting up the school and it was a first class success story which lasted for 11 years. He was relieved after its successful commencement, at which time he continued in educational work as Warden of Wantage Hall at the University of Reading. He died in Africa when on a caravan Holiday in 1971. It is believed that he took his own life, thinking he had an incurable cancer (which he did not actually have) and being unable to cope with the trauma of his wartime experiences. At Emerald Bay on Pankor Laut, just off Pangkor Island, the rendez-vous point with the submarine, Chapman's Bar has been named after him.

The story of Chapman's Malayan jungle adventure can be found in "The Jungle is Neutral", Frederick Spencer Chapman, Lyon Press, ISBN 1-59228-107-9.

Publications by Frederick Spencer Chapman

All books published by Chatto & Windus in London.
*"Northern Lights", 1932.
*"Watkins' Last Expedition", 1934.
*"Lhasa: The Holy City", 1938.
*"Helvellyn to Himalaya", 1940.
*"Memoirs of a Mountaineer", 1945 (combined reprint of the above two).
*"The Jungle is Neutral", 1948
*"Living Dangerously", 1953.
*"Lightest Africa", 1955.

ee also

* Japanese Invasion of Malaya


* Thompson, Peter, "The Battle for Singapore", London, 2005, ISBN 0-7499-5068-4 HB
* Claire Freeman, [ Frederick Spencer Chapman (1907-1971)] , at "The Tibet Album" website, accessed 8 June 2008
* The Red Dragons ( Magazines of King Alfred School Plõn 1948-1953 )

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