Thrust into battle in the jungle at 18

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Remembrance Day feature

Like with most war stories, John Knappett recalls a time when he was plunged into deplorable conditions, only made bearable by the friendships he made, their adventures, the odd morsel of good food and drink and the promise of going home.

Knappett was a soldier in the Malayan Emergency, declared by the British in 1948 in response to an uprising of Chinese communist forces rebelling against British control of the economy.

Knappett immigrated to Canada in 1957, arriving in Avening by train, he spent the next 43 years living in Creemore, marrying a local girl, Evelyn Somerville, raising a family and running a business – Knappett Welding and Repair. But his life story begins in England, where he grew up in Sutton. He walked to school, a six-mile round trip, each weekday and to church, which was beside the school, on Sundays. It was his duty to ring the church bell and pump the organ. Later, he loved hunting rabbits with his two fox terriers and all the things life in the bush had to offer.

As a teen, Knappett was working for the Air Ministry War Department as an engine driver, looking after the generator that powered the runway lights and other airfield components, when he was conscripted to the army at age 18. He was assigned an army number, which he can recite by heart, and for the next two years his life was not his own.

He was shipped off to Gloucester where he spent the next 12 weeks training, the first half was dedicated to weapons training and the second half was jungle training – going through bush and climbing mountains – in preparation for the Malaysian landscape. 

“We got a few days’ leave and then, it was on a weekend that we shipped off. We went to Liverpool and boarded the ship “Orbita” for a five-week journey to Singapore. 

They sailed past Gibraltar, where they encountered 30-foot waves. Knappett said soldiers bunked “down in the hole” and seasickness was very bad in the beginning, for him and others.

The ship stopped for provisions in Port Said, Egypt, where they were allowed to go ashore for a day, but carefully and not alone, because the area was very hostile. 

They went through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and on to Malaysia via the Malacca Strait. 

Knappet remembers being fed very basic rations during the trip but with the ship docked at Columbo, Sri Lanka the crew was served a special feast for Christmas 1949. The Orbita was the only troop ship on the high seas that Christmas and they were served a special breakfast, lunch and a turkey dinner, with “a pint of good ale, the true and proper drink for a soldier”.

After six more weeks of training, soldiers were put into platoons, which made up companies. Knappett was with the Suffolk Regiment. 

Their mission was grueling. They would spend up to three weeks at a time patrolling the jungle for the enemy – guerrilla soldiers with the Malayan National Liberation Army, who had been trained by the British and armed with weapons they used to fight the Japanese during the Second World War. 

Led by a man from Bornio, they tracked the enemy through the jungle and would engage in gunfight when they found them. 

A machine gunner led the group and each man in behind had a rifle. Knappett said he was a good shot; at 200 yards he could hit a two-inch circle. They were paid by their accuracy, but still the pay was dismal.

If they were out in the jungle for too long they would have supplies brought in by plane. A little bit of rum, delivered in large cans, before bedtime was a welcome treat, an improvement over the bread with weevils baked into it.

At one point Knappett got pleurisy and was so sick that he couldn’t walk. They couldn’t get a helicopter to him so he had to be carried out of the jungle on a stretcher. He was taken to hospital in Kuala Lumpur, where he met Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was touring the facility. He doesn’t know how long he spent in hospital but when he was discharged he was sent back into service.

Knappett said he became very close with everyone in his company and the officers treated them as equals. He had a camera with him and has a sizeable collection of photos of the landscape, the soldiers’ camp, and his friends.

Knappett has been asked to be the first one to ring the bells at St. Luke’s Anglican Church for the Legion’s Bells for Peace initiative at dusk on Nov. 11, to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice.

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