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Skidmore's Island: Real Men

Ian Skidmore counts true heroes among his friends.

I attended a very special 100th birthday party. Geoffrey Rowley-Conwy, 9th Baron Langford, has been my best friend for 63 years. He is a man from another age. A good landlord, an amateur jockey, a breeder and driver of trotting horses, but, above all, a brave professional soldier. When Singapore Island fell to the Japanese in 1942, many officers became separated from their units. Not so the young Rowley Conwy He commandeered a Chinese junk and evacuated his entire RA battery. A civilian rubber planter Douglas Fraser joined them. In defiance of army convention, the Colonel (then still a major) recruited him into the army and “commissioned“ him. The two men brought the battery through the Thousand Isles, where Rowkley Conwy was ordered to take command of a log-burning steamer ferrying escaping soldiers down the Irrawaddy to Padang on the West coast and did two trips in it to islands east of Sumatra.

The tourist route, as the river-lift across Sumatra became known, was the inspiration of another chum, Lt Col Alan “Cocky” Ferguson Warren, Royal Marines, Commander, Special Operations Executive Orient. Appalled that no evacuation plan had been made, Warren borrowed, bought or stole a fleet of river boats and set up a mini Dunkirk which saved thousands of lives. When Singapore fell only 800 were left behind. He gave the young Rowley Conwy command of a diesel-engined, 66 ton launch and a map torn from a school exercise book, his only chart, which had Rangoon and Sydney on the same page. Dodging Japanese bombers, running his craft ashore so often the pumps were in constant use, he later took over a second launch, the Plover, in which he made one trip before the route was closed down.

Reporting to Warren, he was told the plan had been to give him charge of all Allied troops in Padang but at 29 he was too young and too junior and so he was told to await orders.Warren bought a Malay pirhau to make his own escape and that of his small staff from Padang but, ashamed at the behaviour of senior British and Australian officers, he gave his place instead to Rowley Conwy.. He remained, appointing himself Commander British Troops and bringing the abandoned soldiery back into units, so that a senior and experienced officer would be present to surrender when inevitably the Japanese reached Padang. This led to three years of captivity in the River Kwai death camps. Had his role in the SOE been discovered it would have meant instant death at the hands of the Japanese Secret Police. Warren's action was one of the most cold-blooded and bravest decisions of the war.

Rowley Conwy joined an elite group of Warren’s SOE staff who sailed the leaky Sederhana Djohanis, with paper-thin and patched sails, across the Bay of Bengal from Padang to Bombay. The 1,500-mile voyage, during which they were strafed by an enemy fighter and almost inadvertently sailed through a Japanese fleet, took 37 days. They were finally picked up a mile off the Ceylon coast by the merchant ship Anglo Canadian.The son of an officer killed at Gallipol, he too joined the army. As a young officer he was forced to live on his pay but typically found ways to run a horse and a Bentley motor car. In India he rode as a jockey for local millionaires. He is a bon viveur with a boundless gift for friendship. His mottoes are “The Best is Barely Good Enough” and “It only costs a Little More to travel First Class.”

He has always been ready for battle. When he had his shirt collars replaced with material from the tail of his shirts he was incandescent when Customs attempted to charge him duty. The resulting correspondence was worthy of Wodehouse. When the Customs ended a letter, “We have the honour to be your Lordship’s Most Obedient Servant”, he wrote back, “Then act like one.”

As a youth he was confronted in Fortnum & Mason’s by a formidable floor walker in a frock coat.“And who might you be?” he demanded.“I am in charge of this floor,” was the reply.“Then get it swept. It’s filthy.”

He owns the Junction Pool of the Rivers Clwyd and Elwy, a fine holding pool for sea trout. He fought a running battle with Flintshire’s Lord Lieutenant Hugh Mainwaring who refused to allow him costs when he took a poacher to court. In reprisal, he took to fining poachers on the spot and sending the money to service charities. When one refused to pay, he followed him home and sat in his front garden until he got his money. He was only once beaten. A disgruntled poacher introduced a seal to the river.

I was his PR sergeant on the Berlin Airlift. We met when I took up residence in an empty aircraft engine packing case next to his office and we have been firm friends from that day to this. His wife Susan was “best man” at my wedding.


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