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Mark Barber and his grandfather Peter Barber
Peter Barber pictured in 1945 in India
Lt Cdr Mark Barber3
Indian soldiers during World War Two, pictured here at Singapore
Indian troops fighting in Burma in 1944

Royal Navy helicopter pilot remembers grandad who fought in Burma aged 18

Published: 12 Aug 2020

The anniversary of victory over Imperial Japan and the end of the Second World War has special significance for one Royal Navy helicopter pilot.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Barber’s grandad Peter Barber was just 18 years old when he served as a British infantry officer in the Indian Army in what was then Burma.

He said his grandfather, who passed away in July 2008, rarely spoke of what he witnessed – such as the atrocities uncovered as they advanced on the retreating Japanese army at the end of the war. This year marks the 75th anniversary of VJ Day on August 15.

“My grandad Peter was the middle of three brothers who all served in the war,” said Lieutenant Commander Barber, a pilot with 824 Naval Air Squadron, the Merlin Mk2 helicopter training unit at RNAS Culdrose at Helston.

“His eldest brother Jack was a warrant officer pilot in the RAF. He was lost with his aircraft over the Bay of Biscay on an anti-submarine patrol in 1944.

“Leo, the youngest, was an RAF aircraft maintainer who later became a fast jet pilot and then a search and rescue helicopter commander.

“The family were descended from a line of railway workers from the Midlands, including his father and grandfather. At the start of the war, becoming an officer in the army depended a lot on your background but that had changed by the end of the war. My grandad was very academic and the changes in society meant that this allowed him to become commissioned as an officer, despite his working-class background.” 

He said Peter was 18 years old in 1945 and became commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters. He was promptly sent to Burma, modern-day Myanmar, to take command of a platoon of some 35 Indian soldiers as part of the 19th Hyderabad Regiment. 

“At his funeral, I found out that he and my grandmother had donated to a Christian charity in support of poverty in India for their entire adult lives,” added Lieutenant Commander Barber. “Clearly working with the Indian Army in 1945 had a great effect on him. He certainly spoke highly of his regard for the Indian soldiers he worked alongside.

“He was a stern man at times and he didn’t talk about the war. From what little he did speak about it, I know he was involved in an amphibious assault against the Japanese. It’s hard to think he was there as an 18-year-old.

“This was before the surrender, but the landing was unopposed. The Japanese lined up at the back of the beach and laid down their weapons. They then turned around to show their backs, by which they meant to say they surrendered but did not respect their opponents. I don’t suppose my grandad and his men were that bothered by the gesture.

“Most of his time was not spent fighting but actively following the retreat through Burma and uncovering the atrocities in the villages left behind by the Japanese scorched-earth policy. As a young child I could never really understand why he wouldn’t talk about it. But I suppose that’s the realities of facing a war as a young man, having lost a brother, versus the Hollywood myths that were perpetuated in the decades that followed. 

“I remember, when I was training for an operational deployment to an area of conflict, I’d visit him in his care home. He talked about it all just a little more then. He told me to never volunteer for anything!

“He passed away shortly before I deployed. After I came back, I had a better understanding about why he didn’t talk about his experiences of war. I’m glad I never pressed him for more and we spent our time speaking about happier things.”

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