Alan Cumming's Grandfather fought at the Battle of Kohima (Image via Wikipedia)
Tonight’s WDYTYA was possibly one of the best yet. And what’s more, this remarkable story focussed on just one ancestor. Alan Cumming (actor, x-men: I didn’t have a clue who he was!) knew that his grandfather had served in the Army during the war and had died suspiciously in Malaya, but very little apart from that.
Tom Darling joined the Cameron Highlanders – a Scottish Infantry Regiment – in the 1930’s. After a period as a cook at the Regimental Depot, he was assigned as a motorcycle despatch rider, and saw action in France in 1940. He was awarded the Military Medal for an action in May 1940 when he drove his motorbike between Headquarters and the Rifle Companies carrying ammunition, along an exposed road in full view of the enemy.
After being evacuated to Britain and promoted to Sergeant, Darling was sent to Burma in time to fight in the Battle of Kohima. He was wounded, probably by shrapnel. He was evacuated to a Hospital India. Then, his service record is mysteriously vacant. It appears that he spent time in hospital with battle-related mental illness, as he was in an institution in India known for treating mental illness, and which gave its name to the term to ‘go dolally’. After recovering and seeing out his service with the Army, he was demobilised. His family did not see him again after 1945. Originally it was thought that he had simply been serving abroad.
After a year working as a sales clerk at a garage in St Albans. He obviously found civvy street not to his liking, for he soon applied to join the Malay Police Force. In his application, Alan Cumming found a shocking discovery – he listed his marital status as ‘separated’. That explains why his family did not see him again after the end of the war, and also why he possibly travelled to the other side of the world.
Whilst in Malaya, Tom Darling was part of a police force that was involved in a bitter counter-insurgency campaign against communist guerillas. Darling’s job, as a Police Lieutenant, was to guard villages against insurgents. Other police units were tasked to go out into the countryside and capture and kill communists, whose bodies were then brought back to the villages for identification and display. Darling was evidently well thought of, as the locals state when Cumming visits the area.
The circumstances of Darling’s death turned out to be even more shocking than feared. It transpires that he was playing Russian Roulette with a revolver, and either his luck ran out, or he misjudged it, or both. He was killed by a gunshot wound behind his ear. Apparently he would regularly play Russian Roulette, and the local people would bet on the outcome. Such a tragic end for a very brave and distinguished man. Its difficult not to imagine how a man who had been through traumatic experiences, was wounded in battle, had experienced combat stress and who had separated from his family possibly felt nothing to lose by playing Russian Roulette.
For me this was one of the best WDYTA episodes ever. Focussing in detail on the story of one man, it was excellently researched, across some difficult subjects and locations. Not only that, but it gave us some idea of the human toll of war, something that we very rarely get to hear about.
Alan Cumming’s Who Do You Think You Are? is available to view on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010