On the anniversary of VJ Day 2017, the author Philip Davies published his long anticipated book, ‘Lost Warriors‘, about the exploits of two extraordinary Second World War soldiers. There are, of course, many extraordinary tales of heroism and bravery that were born out of this conflict, many of them well known, and others much less so, while there are others that are still waiting to be told. The story of Major Hugh Seagrim and Corporal Roy Pagani fall into the less known category. Prior to Davies’ book, both men have had their exploits put into print. In Seagrim’s case, The Times correspondent Ian Morrison was given unprecedented access to the files of SOE and the result was ‘Grandfather Long Legs’, published in 1947. For Pagani, ‘The Flame of Freedom’ was available from 1988, based on his diaries.
If these men have such remarkable stories, then why was anything new needed? Why aren’t these publications better known about? What has Davies’ done which needed doing? And what does all this have to do with a special Remembrance Sunday service over in Burma, or Myanmar as it now more acceptably known?
The story of Pagani and Seagrim are entwined, but it is probably fair to say that until ‘Lost Warriors’ was published, the full extent of their adventures have not really been told. Morrison was able to track down Pagani, but his abridged account of his experiences are only included as an appendix to ‘Grandfather Long Legs’. Likewise, in writing ‘The Flame of Freedom’, Robert Hamond concentrated on the story of Pagani, writing at the beginning of Chapter 8: ‘It is not within the scope of this book to recount in detail the exploits of this remarkable officer [Seagrim] except in so far as they affect Pagani’s story.’
What Davies has done is bring fifteen years of research together to provide a colourful and detailed account of the two men’s war in Burma. The meticulous attention to detail and synthesis of many newly available documented sources of information, together with personal contacts within Burma and with the families of the two men, has resulted in a new volume which will hopefully place the tales of these two remarkable soldiers on to the tongue of a public with a voracious appetite for all things Second World War.
Without giving too much away, a brief outline of the story of Pagani and Seagrim: Pagani, as Davies says, should probably be known as one of the best escapers of the war. Cut off in France in 1940, he escaped by stealing a boat and sailing back to Blighty. Posted to the Far East, he arrived in Singapore on 7 February, just eight days before the surrender. Instead of marching into captivity as ordered, Pagani again found a boat and sailed for safety. The Japanese caught up with him in Sumatra, and he soon found himself working on the ‘Death Railway’, the Japanese line constructed between Thailand and Burma. He is the only man who is known to have escaped from the railway, at least of European origin. After trekking across Burma, he finally linked up with Seagrim in the Karen Hills.
Seagrim was recruited by SOE’s Oriental Mission in January 1942, and deployed into the Karen Hills to raise guerrillas and attack the Japanese lines of communication as they invaded Burma. The Japanese success in Burma meant that, very soon, Seagrim was cut off from the retreating British and Empire troops, so he decided to stay with the Karen people, whom he had much affection for. From April 1942 until February 1944, Seagrim remained in the jungle, for much of the time without communications equipment, until he felt compelled to give himself up to the Japanese to prevent further reprisals being carried out against Karen villagers. His surrender eventually resulted in a Japanese court finding him guilty of spying and sentencing him and seven Karen comrades to death.
The execution of Seagrim, along with Lt. Ba Gyaw, Saw He Be, Saw Tun Lin, Saw Sunny, Saw Pe, Saw Peter and Saw Ah Din was carried out at Kemmendine Cemetery in September 1944. It was here that I gathered with Philip Davies, Seagrim’s nephew Michael Seagrim, veterans from across Burma, dignitaries from around Southeast Asia, and those that had made the trip from the UK, to attend the first of two Remembrance Day Services that were very special indeed.
It was a gloriously sunny morning, and being the beginning of the ‘cool’ season, yet the contrast with the cold November of many Remembrance Parades in the UK was quite marked. Kemmendine, now called the Rangoon War Cemetery, is kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but is not to be confused with the larger Taukkyan CWGC site further north of the city. It is a little oasis of calm at the end of a typical Rangoon street thronged with street vendors and wandering dogs.
Rangoon War Cemetery: Seagrim’s grave is to the left of the purple flowers. To his left and right lie his Karen comrades.
It was easy to disguise a tear as perspiration leaking from behind sun glasses as the Last Post was played.
Some of the veterans with their families and helpers at the Remembrance Service
Many of the congregation then made their way to the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Yangon for the next service. This service had been specially organised by Davies, with a memorial stone to Seagrim to be unveiled in the World War Two Memorial Chapel within the Cathedral. The veterans were in good voice, especially for the Karen Hymn sung by Seagrim and his men all those years ago. An inopportune power cut was taken in our stride, and as the overhead fans slowly wound down, water was distributed to a grateful congregation as the heat of the tropics made itself felt.
Top: Philip Davies with the newly unveiled memorial to Seagrim. Bottom middle: Michael Seagrim with the memorial to his uncle.
All of the day’s proceedings were filmed by Grammar Productions. The team from Grammar are making a film called ‘Forgotten Allies’, and are making a very welcome and courageous effort to try and interview the remaining veterans who fought for Britain in the Burma campaign. A teaser trailer is available on the link above.
For me, having spent the last nine years producing ‘The Special Operations Executive in Burma’, it was quite an emotional day. Seagrim is an important part of the story of SOE in Burma, and to be there on Remembrance Sunday, and for the unveiling in the cathedral, was very special. It also felt fitting to wear my Grandad’s medals, particularly his Burma Star, in the country in which he earned it. I am very grateful for the invitation to attend, and commend ‘Lost Warriors’, the story of Seagrim and Pagani, to you.