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How Harold Hill veteran Arthur Bertram Sykes used Cockney rhyming slang to defy his Korean captors

Arthur Skyes Arthur Skyes

Saturday, December 14, 2013
12:00 PM

A modest Harold Hill veteran with a remarkable past has died aged 92. Ramzy Alwakeel found out how rhyming slang got Arthur Bertram Sykes into trouble with the Koreans

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Battle of the Imjin River

Date: April, 1951

Location: Imjin River, Korea

Between: UN forces and China

Aim: For China to recapture Seoul from the UN

Casualties: 159 UN troops killed (mostly British), more than 1,000 captured, missing or wounded; 15,000 wounded, killed or missing Chinese troops

Result: No clear winner, but despite being outnumbered the UN forces held their position for three days and significantly dented Chinese forces. The battle made the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, part of Britain’s 29th Infantry Brigade, famous after it was surrounded and captured at what is now, in their honour, called Gloster Hill.

Twice a prisoner of war, the fourth-youngest of 22 siblings, a childhood runaway and proud recipient of the British Empire Medal – you’d think the newspapers would have been spoilt for choice when it came to Arthur “Bill” Bertram Sykes.

But it was Bill’s singing voice that Singapore’s Straits Times chose to lead on when chronicling his military service in Korea.

For, having been captured during the Battle of the Imjin River in 1951, Harold Hill man Bill – who died last week aged 92 – infuriated the “reds” by mocking them in verse.

One colourful adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s “they seek him here, they seek him there” rhyme earnt him not only applause from his fellow prisoners but also brutal torture by beating and solitary confinement by his captors, who ordered him to “repent”.

Arthur Skyes, age nine when he went to Barnardo'sArthur Skyes, age nine when he went to Barnardo's

Bill was made to stand in front of his men and swear he wouldn’t make fun of the Communists again.

But as the words “fingers crossed I won’t be rude to the better-off-deads any more” passed his lips, Korea sensed something was amiss.

“Why are you laughing?” demanded the interpreter of Bill’s hysterical troops. “Is your sergeant mocking us?”

Incredibly, one responded: “We are laughing because he is a Cockney and talks funny.”

Arthur Skyes' medals.Arthur Skyes' medals.

Born in 1921 near St Pancras Station, Bill was taken into care aged five. The 19th of 22 children, his parents simply didn’t have the resources to look after him – though that didn’t stop him running away every time he was placed somewhere new.

Eventually he became a “Barnardo’s boy” – a title of which he was very proud in later life – and the young Bill resided at the charity’s Fairlop home until he was 15.

It was then he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

Although he was underage, step-grandson Neil Lucas reckons it was the best thing he could have done.

Arthur Skyes with a machine gun in Koria.Arthur Skyes with a machine gun in Koria.

“If you think what he came from, I think going into the military was a godsend,” he told the Recorder.

By now married to Cis and father to William, Belinda and Pamela, Bill was moved by the London County Council from Poplar to Colne Drive on its newly-built Harold Hill estate in 1950. Neil believes Bill’s original home was bombed during the Blitz, forcing the move – the same reason many families ended up on the Hill.

He began working in Ford’s, Dagenham, as a foreman. Cis died, and Bill married again – this time to Marie, now 93.

It wasn’t just newspapers in which Bill found fame. After his death, Neil discovered his step-granddad had appeared on a 1950s BBC TV broadcast – In Town Tonight – to discuss his wartime experiences.

An appearance on national television would be the stuff of life-long boasts for some – but it didn’t surprise Neil that modest Bill had kept quiet.

“A lot of people never realised what he did,” said carpenter Neil, 42.

“It’s only when we’ve been digging around and finding medals we’ve found what he was about. You look at where he’s served, and it’s mind-blowing.”

After moving to a retirement home in the 1980s, Bill and Marie came back to the Hill 10 years ago, “fed up of seeing people taken out in ambulances”.

A popular figure, he would often receive visits from school parties who wanted to listen to his stories.

Soon after getting to Korea he was promoted to corporal in the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment’s machine gun platoon. He served for five months before the famous 1951 battle at which he and more than 500 other men were surrounded, captured and marched hundreds of miles back to China.

It wasn’t his first taste of imprisonment. While serving in Italy during the Second World War, he was captured by German troops, and went on to spend two years under lock and key.

Later, he served in Palestine and Egypt.

“He was the most gracious man,” said Neil. “Whatever he received he was grateful for – because he came from having nothing.

“He was just a lovely, lovely person. He would put anyone else before himself.”

Bill’s funeral took place on Friday at Corbets Tey Crematorium, Upminster.

Mr Sykes received the British Empire Medal (BEM) for his “splendid conduct” during and after the the Battle of Imjin River.

It read: “Throughout the five months on active service in Korea prior to his capture in April 1951 at the Battle of the Imjin River, he displayed the highest qualities of leadership not only in his section but in his platoon and company, too. His devotion to duty, and his cheerfulness under adverse conditions were instrumental in maintaining the high standard of morale of his subordinates and superiors alike. Neither setbacks nor fatigue prevented him from seeing any task through to a successful conclusion; and he was ever a willing volunteer whenever any special task arose.

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