From Marlow to Malaya?

When Tokyo Imperial University unexpectedly won the Grand Challenge Cup for Senior Eights at the prestigious Marlow Regatta in 1936, the names of the winners were engraved in Japanese characters on the cup’s base, perhaps an indication of the respect that the visitors earned. Picture: @MarlowRegatta.

8 September 2022

By Tim Koch

Yesterday, I wrote about the “barroom legends” that have grown up around the 1936 Tokyo Imperial University Eight that raced at the Marlow and Henley regattas and then went on to represent Japan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I noted that these mostly concerned the rates (the number of oar strokes per minute) that they set in competition and in practice. 

I concluded that, while these rates have often been exaggerated, this does not change the fact that the Japanese students were a remarkable crew who earned enormous respect from the British public for their dedication and hard work (despite a lack of real success after Marlow). This was at a time of unflinching British Imperialism when such admiration would be very difficult for members of non-white races such as the Japanese to earn.

There is, however, a second (albeit unverifiable) legend about Tokyo University’s 1936 eight that is less pleasant to relate. It took place six years after the Marlow win, on the other side of the word and had no connection to sport. It centres on a wartime incident in Malaya in 1942.

In 2012, I wrote about Noel Duckworth who coxed Cambridge to three Boat Race victories in 1934, 1935 and 1936 and who then steered the British eight that came fourth in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In the 1960s he played a large part in establishing the boat club at the new Cambridge college, Churchill.

Noel Duckworth and the 1936 Cambridge Crew.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Duckworth, an ordained Anglican clergyman, was appointed Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. In January 1942, the 2nd Cambridgeshires and others were defending Batu Pahat on Malaya’s west coast. They were ordered to withdraw as they were in danger of being cut off by advancing Japanese forces. As a non-combatant, Duckworth should have been the first to go but he and two doctors chose to stay with those wounded who could not be evacuated. The story is taken up (in his own style) by Russell Braddon, the Australian author of the million selling The Naked Island (1952), an account of his time as a Far East Prisoner of War:
(Duckworth) stayed there and when the Japanese… would have slaughtered the wounded, this little man flayed them with such a virulent tongue that they were sufficiently disconcerted to refrain. They beat him up very cruelly for days… but they did not kill the wounded men that he had stayed behind to protect… His name is Padre Noel Duckworth. It is a name that thousands of Australians, Englishmen and Scots will always remember until the day they die.

A picture by Ronald Searle drawn in 1959 depicting Noel Duckworth in captivity fifteen years earlier negotiating exchanging a pen for food with a Japanese guard. Today, some may regard this deception of the Japanese as racist but, as Searle was a former Far East Prisoner of War, I think that we need to allow him licence. Picture: Churchill College Archives.

In Duckworth’s biography Canon Noel Duckworth: An Extraordinary Life (2012), Michael Smyth puts forward a fascinating if ultimately unprovable suggestion as to why Duckworth was not killed for defying his Japanese captors:

When Noel was captured with the wounded soldiers one of the doctors who had also stayed behind attested “I firmly believe that Noel’s fame as a rowing man saved all our lives” because a Japanese officer recognised Noel. This story is given some credence by the fact that a Japanese crew from Tokyo University participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as well as Henley prior to that, so it is likely that Duckworth was known to them. Furthermore, of the Japanese Divisions used for the invasion of Malaya, one, “The Imperial Guard,” traditionally recruited its officers from Tokyo University.

Make of that what you will.

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