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6th November 2006 by John Davis (nephew)


When asked if I would speak to you today, two questions came to mind. Firstly, where could I go for inspiration, and secondly, what is this occasion about?

With regard to inspiration, my answer was easy, just as it has always been for so many important occasions in my life. I would immediately think of John Davis for guidance and for insight. This inspiration will, I believe, be something that will stay with me always.

On my second question Ė what is this occasion about? We are here today to celebrate the life of John and to give our love and our support to those he leaves behind.

In celebrating his life I will begin by describing what his life meant to me, and to those around him. It seems to split into two halves, John Davis, the maker of history, without whom the political map of South East Asia could well have been very different, and John Davis the man, husband, father, friend, arguer, and spreader of joy and hope to those fortunate enough to be around him.

John the maker of history. This is not the time to give a lengthy and detailed account of his career. But I should like to tell you about two occasions during his early life which give us some idea of his achievements.

The first is his war-time role. After the Fall of Singapore in 1942, John and a party of 18 others crossed the Indian Ocean in a small open sailing boat. It was attacked by Japanese aircraft on two occasions, and by most contemporary assessments, sailed clean through the Japanese battle fleet without being spotted. On his arrival in Colombo, John began the recruitment and training of a clandestine army to return to Malaya, to fight the Japanese from jungle bases behind enemy lines.

After a blind landing on the West Coast of Malaya from a submarine, he and five others made contact with the Chinese guerrillas. The negotiations that then took place were led by John for the Allies, and Lai Tek, with his young, dynamic deputy Chin Peng, for the guerrillas. The outcome, a treaty with the Communists written in a school exercise book and signed in the jungle, was a diplomatic triumph. It formed the basis for the development of a guerrilla army in Malaya under John's leadership, and the successful and largely peaceful handover to the Allies at the end of the war.

This story does not however take into account the setbacks and extreme difficulties along the way. The penetration of his espionage network by the Japanese Kempatei, the overrunning of his jungle base by Japanese troops, and the total failure of radio communication with his base in Colombo. He fought disease and starvation in addition to an implacable enemy. For nearly two years he was presumed dead. He once told me that he had had the unusual privilege of reading his own obituary!

Even the final surrender at the end of the war brought its own drama. It was John, armed only with an outsized Union Jack, who stepped out into a hail of bullets on the street of a provincial town, and commanded the Communist guerrillas and a remnant of Japanese soldiers to cease firing forthwith.

During the war years a close friendship developed between Chin Peng and John, with extraordinary consequences. Chin Peng was soon to become the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, but to Johnís deep dismay, he chose in 1948 the path of violence and bloodshed, rather than peaceful diplomacy. Chin Peng led the first post-war insurrection, which became the Malayan Emergency. The loss of life was huge as he led his terrorists in their rebellion against the Malayan Government in a bitter campaign that lasted for 12 years. In Britain, Chin Peng became known as Ďpublic enemy number oneí, and for John he became an implacable opponent, who he fought for the remainder of his service in Malaya until his retirement in 1960.

The second incident I should like to speak of happened in December 1955 at the Baling peace talks between the Communist terrorists and the Malayan Government. Because of their close friendship during the war, John Davis was chosen to be Chin Pengís conducting officer during the 2 days of negotiations. In this capacity he walked unarmed into the jungle to meet Chin Peng, and when confronted with his long term friend, now political adversary, uttered in fluent Cantonese, the memorable greeting "long time no see".

The fact that the British campaign against terrorists in Malaya was the sole post-war defeat of a Communist insurrection was in no small measure due to the efforts and abilities of John Davis.

Two things flow from this campaign, the first of which is his modesty and self-effacement. He has allowed others to steal the limelight in their books and accounts, while he has been characteristically content to stay in the background. The second is the enduring nature of friendship. Most of us in our wildest flights of fancy could not imagine being visited for afternoon tea in Sussex by a leader of similar stature to Ho Chi Minh, but John was visited by Chin Peng in 1998, more than 40 years after their previous meeting at the Baling talks.

I have probably spoken for too long on John Davis the maker of history. I must now turn to the much bigger subject of John Davis the man. His effect on others was profound. To me he was an uncle, a father and a guardian during my parentsí years of absence, and a role model whose example I have always aspired to but never reached.

In personal terms he received the DSO for outstanding service under difficult and dangerous conditions, and he was made a Commander of the British Empire. The newly independent nation of Malaya honoured him twice in the last three years of his service to the ex-colony.

There are in our house photographs of John, taken just after the war, looking unusually smart in the army uniform of a full colonel. I have always treasured his explanation that he never actually owned an army uniform, but had to hastily hire one from Moss Bros before going to Buckingham Palace to receive his DSO.

He was a maverick who cared more for truth and integrity than for convention. This lack of convention, and his radical approach permeated his life. He was a free thinker, who was never afraid to make his views quite plain. He would challenge those around him to debate and argument, and he usually prevailed because of his wide-ranging reading and fierce intellect. He was extremely proud of Helen's artistic talent which blossomed during the course of their long marriage.

In 1960 my father took a job in the United States, and my parents departed for New York, leaving me in the tender care of my new guardian John Davis. I remember travelling, in some trepidation, to their house, Sandacre, in Kent to settle into my new home and meet my new family. John, Helen, Patta, Bill, Humphrey and Tom all made me extremely welcome in their astonishing household.

Typical experiences of life at Sandacre. Taking a bath. This was accomplished by firing up an enormous cylindrical boiler shaped like a rocket, which took off with a roar and yielded a thin trickle of rusty water. The process of washing-up. This involved washing the dishes in the sink and putting them to drain in the plate rack above. The tricky part, though, was positioning the plates precisely so that the pigeons, who nested on the top of the plate rack, aimed their droppings directly into the sink, rather than onto the clean plates.

My years at Sandacre were among the happiest of my youth. I particularly remember my first departure to university. This was an occasion on which John, as my official guardian, felt it incumbent upon himself to give me advice on the subject of women. The motorbike was running, helmet on head when I was aware of an urgent knocking, and turned to see John gazing anxiously through the visor. He had screwed up the resolve to warn his 18-year old nephew about the extreme dangers of wild women. It just so happened that I did meet my future wife at Sandacre!

Those very special times reflected the unique atmosphere of a household in which convention played a very small part. Everything was possible no matter how inconvenient or how unusual. There never seemed to be a hill too steep to climb, a project too difficult to undertake, or a task that could not be tackled and completed. John was a man who instinctively said yes, and then inspired those around him to achieve beyond their expectations. Yet this leadership quality was always coupled with consideration for others and a great personal modesty. He avoided the limelight, and is probably even now cringing at my comments.

Other memories of times with John, which I know are shared by many of you here. Long freezing swims in the sea at Hythe debating personal philosophy. Fol-boating in the English Channel. Repetitive walks, in cold and rain, over Brockman's bushes. In more recent years John and Helenís mission to look after others less fortunate than themselves. They travelled by car all over southern England, to visit old friends and family beset by bad health or other misfortune, bringing moral support as well as practical help. My Father was one of the many recipients of their generosity right up to the time of his death. John and Helenís example is a personal challenge to us all.

More recently, John and Helen moved into Chestnut View in Haslemere where they were cared for by a wonderful staff. Johnís numerous "escapes" from the Home earned him the nickname Houdini. The fact that in his middle 90s, he could beat their security systems was no surprise us, but it may be no one told them that he had spent years in the jungle evading Japanese patrols. His Haslemere breakouts must've seemed a breeze!

All of us here have been associated with John in some capacity, and there are others who sadly have been unable to join us today. We will all treasure our individual memories of him. We also remember that this is funeral service and a service of thanksgiving for a man who gave so much to so many during his long life. What a privilege it is to have known him.

Since I prepared this address we have received a message from the other side of the world from a friend Johnís of more then 60 years standing.

This is a tribute from Chin Peng.