We were delighted to be contacted recently by Mrs Tucker, the wife of a certain pipe smoking Mr Tucker who was about to reach the heady vintage of 100 years old. As a long time customer of ours we decided to send Mr Tucker a small present to congratulate him on his milestone, and as a thank you for his custom over the years. We were delighted then to receive a picture of the venerable Mr Tucker on his birthday, smoking said gift!
On speaking to Mrs Tucker it soon became clear that reaching 100 years old was an even greater achievement in light of the following story… Many thanks got to Mr and Mrs Tucker for allowing us to publish this fascinating biography.
Ralph Tucker is the last man left from a group of war heroes who fought a deadly battle behind enemy lines. Mr Tucker, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, was a member of the original Chindits, a feared and elite British fighting force that saw bloody action in the Far East during the Second World War. The Chindits – who got their name from the half-lion, half-eagle beast, the Chinthe, a symbolic guardian of Burmese temples – were a unique team of soldiers assembled by Brigadier Orde Wingate to infiltrate deep behind Japanese lines in the jungles of Burma and to sabotage enemy communications. They made history on St Valentine’s Day 1943 as the first Allied force to invade Japanese occupied Burma.
Ralph, who lives with wife Gwen in Exeter, said: “Our work was so secretive and experimental that we were not recognised as a regular Army regiment and could only be likened to the SAS of today. Nobody had any rank. There were no officers, sergeants or corporals. Some very high-ranking officers dropped their rank to take part. The reason was that if you were caught by the Japanese it was a case of the higher your rank, the more harsh your treatment.”
Ralph was born in Powderham Road, Exeter, when it consisted of only three houses. His father worked at Rice’s Collar Factory in Waterbeer Street. Young Ralph attended the Bluecoat School and Exeter Technical School. In his youth he also played water polo for Exeter, tennis for Devon and soccer for Friernhay, in the process building up a level of fitness that would stand him in good stead. He wanted to become articled as a railway draughtsman, but his by-then widowed mother could not find the £100 fee, so he went into the textile trade instead with city wool and cloth merchants Lear, Brown and Dunsford, eventually serving the company for many years and later becoming a rep with Courtaulds. After joining the Devonshire Regiment early in the Second World War, he was posted to the 12th Battalion at Denbury, Newton Abbot, and volunteered for special duties, taking the place of another man whose wife was having a baby.
He didn’t know it then, but the special duties were to take him to India and into Wingate’s Chindits. Things had been going badly for the Allies in Burma and the Far East Commander, General Archibald Wavell, brought the charismatic, unorthodox Wingate out from the UK to organise guerrilla operations in central Burma.
Ralph was trained as a sharpshooter and was able, as he put it, to hit anything blindfolded. Others in the team were demolition and explosives experts.
Ralph recalled: “Our aim was to pave the way for a major offensive which was postponed, but Wingate, who was as mad as a hatter, persuaded Wavell to let us go in anyway.
“Before we set off, General Wavell gave us a talk and saluted us – perhaps the only time a general saluted his men. At first we had three elephants with us, but they made too much noise and had to be sent back.
“Less than 3,000 of us were involved. We were divided into seven columns and I was in Column 7. Our job was to cut the enemy’s lines of supply. We blew up railway bridges and sank supply canoes. We waded and swam across the Chindwin river to enter the jungle of Burma on the opposite bank.
“The jungle was so dense that you could be only an arm’s length from a Japanese soldier waiting to jump you, and not be aware that he was there. Another river we had to wade was the Irrawady, which was infested with crocodiles. We found that the best way of protecting ourselves was to shoot one, because others would eat it while we got away.
“At one stage eight of us were quite literally on the road to Mandalay, and got to within ten miles of it. The road was full of Japanese in retreat.
“This jungle operation went on for five months until we had a message from headquarters telling us: ‘We can no longer support you. Make your own way out.’ A lot of our chaps never did come out.
“I weighed a mere six stone when I reached a military hospital at Imphal in Assam. They put me in a tub of disinfectant and a nurse told me: ‘We had to burn all your clothes. They were alive with lice.’
“An Army surgeon told me not to eat any solid foods because my guts had shrunk through my diet in the jungle, and I had gone through several attacks of malaria.”
Ralph discovered that Brigadier Wingate had spread the word that people should give every possible help to his Chindits when they completed their job in Burma. He was told that if he needed any help he should use the password “Hutu”, and he found that this worked like magic. “Whenever I used it, people treated me like a lord,” he added.
In Bombay he was offered a commission by the Indian army, but turned it down because it would have meant staying on for another year. After four years overseas, he wanted to get back home.
One of Ralph’s abiding memories is of sitting on a mountain top at Murree, in what is now Pakistan, and being able to see China, Russia, Iran, India and Mount Everest all from the same spot. He was allocated his own private compartments on trains and eventually reached Karachi, where he had to report to the airport for his flight home.
He discovered he was to travel with four Australians in a Liberator which they were flying back to the UK for maintenance work. They stopped for a night in Tel Aviv, crossed the Western Desert and France and then landed at Merryfield, near Taunton.
Ralph said: “Someone invited me to go and have my first English pint in a local pub. The pub was shut but my host roused the landlord and told him I was just back from Burma. He immediately invited us in and gave us a pint each, which he said were on him.”
After demob, Ralph returned to his job with Lear, Brown and Dunsford, who had made up his pay while he was in the Army.
He met Gwen (née Sheppard) a member of the old Exeter building firm and a former wartime Land Army girl, when they were both at Exeter Speedway in 1946. (With thanks to Mike Byrne of the Western Morning News).
A fascinating glimpse into the life of a very courageous man, I’m sure you’ll agree! We wish Ralph and Gwen all the best for many more years to come.