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Hugh Seagrim

Major Hugh Seagrim GC DSO MBE

I wondered whether any of us were aware that one of ASHMANSWORTH’s sons is a largely unknown Second World War recipient of the George Cross?

Major Hugh Seagrim was born in Ashmansworth on 24 March 1909. His father was The Reverend Charles Seagrim who was Vicar of Ashmansworth from 1904-1909. Hugh was one of 5 brothers and was born in the vicarage just before the family moved to Norfolk. All five brothers served in the Army. He and his older brother Derek are the only known brothers to have been awarded the George Cross and Victoria Cross respectively. Hugh was at King Edward VI School in Norwich - where Horatio Nelson had also studied. He went up to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst from where he was commissioned in 1929 into the Indian Army. He was an incredibly tall man - 6 feet 4 inches tall and played Goal keeper for his School, his Regiment and for Burma. He served with 1st Battalion, the Burma Rifles, with whom he learnt Burmese, travelled extensively in the country and unusually also to Japan before the Second World War. 

At World War Two started he was sent to Staff College at Quetta - now in Pakistan - where he earned a reputation for maverick thinking. He felt that war with Japan was imminent and that only by adopting guerrilla tactics from the Burmese Karen Hills could an advance be held.

In early 1942, Japan invaded Burma, the gateway to India; by March Seagrim had been cut off behind the Japanese lines near the village of Papun. From here he raised a force of some 3000 Karen Hill tribesmen to act as intelligence gatherers and stay behind guerrilla fighters. The British were well aware of his presence and he was awarded the MBE in 1942.

Over the next two years - completely cut off and living among the Karen he evaded capture and continued to train the Karen fighters. The Karen nicknamed him “Grandfather Longlegs”. He realised very early on that he would need to curtail their desire to get back at the Japanese and Burmese Independence Army for fear of reprisals coupled with lack of support because he could not communicate with the British in India. In October 1943 he was joined by two British Officers with Radios and was able to pass intelligence back to India. Sadly they were killed in February 1944 and Seagrim too had to flee from an increasingly desperate Japanese force keen to neutralise him. In early 1944 he was awarded the DSO.

Seagrim however was more than a soldier and more than a guerrilla leader. He was a deeply religious and spiritual man. Early in his 20s he started to explore not just Christianity but also other faiths. His deep faith greatly influenced his impact with the Christian Karen.

As 1944 progressed Seagrim increasingly realised that his continued presence amongst the Karens was causing greater casualties as the Japanese secret police took more drastic action trying to track him down. Villages were razed to the ground and Karen people tortured to try to extract information leading to his capture. So on 14 March 1944, Seagrim voluntarily gave himself up to the Japanese pleading that they spare the Karens from more atrocities. From deep within the Karen hills he was taken to Rangoon where he was tortured for 6 months. Throughout this time he continuously pleaded to be executed as a spy in order to spare the Karen people. His Japanese captors came to hugely respect him. Fellow prisoners including two German Officers mistakenly arrested by the Japanese and downed allied Airmen were all deeply humbled by his humanity and dignity. He reportedly never failed to smile or help his fellow prisoners.

On 1 Sept 1944 he was tried by the Japanese military court and sentenced to death. He was shot just outside Rangoon on 2 September and is buried in Rangoon Military Cemetery.  

So what was his legacy? Did he die in vain? In early 1944 the Japanese Imperial Army attempted to defeat the Commonwealth Army in India but after being defeated at Imphal and Kohima between March and July 1944, the Japanese advance was halted. Field Marshall Bill Slim was able to lead the 14th Army - an eclectic mix of British, Indians, Gurkhas, West Africans, Australians and New Zealanders to eventual victory in Burma. Between February and March 1945 - British Officers parachuted into the Karen Hills linking up with Seagrim’s sleeper cells who rapidly expanded to 12,000 guerrilla troops. As Slim’s conventional forces advanced into Burma, Seagrim’s Karen guerrillas were able to attack the retreating Japanese troops. By the end of March 1945 Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi the current Leader of Burma/Myanmar) and his Burmese Independence Army had risen up against the occupying Japanese. However the way to the critical port of Rangoon was blocked by 70,000 Japanese troops of the 28th Army. As they attempted to retreat and defend Rangoon - the only usable port in Burma, Seagrim’s Guerrillas inflicted massive casualties on the Japanese. Twice as many Japanese were killed in the Karen Hills as were killed at Kohima and by preventing them from reaching Rangoon, it was possible to recapture Rangoon with many fewer lives lost by 2 May 1945.

Mountbatten and Slim both felt that without Seagrim’s guerrillas the War in the East would have lasted many more months if not another year.  

Seagrim’s bravery was recognised by the award of the George Cross. His citation reads: 

“Awarded the George Cross for most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner. Major Seagrim was the leader of a party which included two other British and one Karen officer working in the Karen Hills of Burma. By the end of 1943 the Japanese had learned of this party who then commenced a campaign of arrests and torture to determine their whereabouts. In February 1944 the other two British officers were ambushed and killed but Major Seagrim and the Karen officer escaped. The Japanese then arrested 270 Karens and tortured and killed many of them but still they continued to support Major Seagrim. To end further suffering to the Karens, Seagrim surrendered himself to the Japanese on 15th March 1944. He was taken to Rangoon and together with eight others he was sentenced to death. He pleaded that the others were following his orders and as such they should be spared, but they were determined to die with him and were all executed.

There is an amazing book by Phillip Davies Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani's Burma: The Last Great Untold Story of WWII (Atlantic Publishing, 2017) exploring his life which I came across quite by chance at Christmas. Hugh Seagrim is buried in Rangoon and there is a memorial to him in Whissonsett in Norfolk where he grew up after being born in Ashmansworth.