As I Was Saying to Joe and Saigo....

When Death Says 'Not Today!' (Part Two)

Many people who knew Tubby Abrahams were aware that he survived the sinking of the British battle cruiser HMS Repulse by the Japanese. Indeed, all the way through this episode and after it seemed that Death was several times on the point of calling it a day for Tubby – and then had a change of heart. During the aerial attack witnesses said for a time Tubby, armed with his camera, seemed in several places at once. Tubby always moved at speed to be close to the action. But very soon came the call to abandon ship. Death was very busy that day, but there he was up close as Tubby made it safely into the water. Death came in the form of a dirty great Marine wearing a dirty great boot. Tubby (minus camera) had just started floating when the Marine came hurtling down from the ship rail – his boot landing square on to one of Tubby's knees, sending Tubby deep into the sea. When, half-drowned, Tubby re-surfaced, he was almost immediately pulled into a life raft.

Later, his shattered knee dressed by medics in Singapore, Tubby lay on a stretcher with hundreds of other wounded waiting for a ship and evacuation to safety. Warehouses were used as temporary hospital wards – and the waiting wounded had strict instructions to stay where they had been parked. Each man had a numbered ticket – and each warehouse had been allocated a ship.

Tubby learned that some of his shipmates were in a near-by warehouse – and he was determined to join them, despite the strict instructions from higher authority to stay where he was. Tubby never made it quite clear as to how he made the move – but make the move he did, and in the process managed to to get a new ticket and number which persuaded higher authority he was entitled to a place in the warehouse of his choice and on a ship with his shipmates.

Tubby made his way from Singapore and eventually arrived home in England. The ship he had originally been booked to sail on left Singapore crowded with wounded men and civilian refugees, heading for what they hoped would be safety in Indonesia or Australia. They never made it.

Hundreds died when the Japanese found the ship and sank her. There was not a single survivor.

And so Death again came very close to Tubby – but reprieved him.

This was a pattern that was followed throughout the war for on a number of occasions it seemed Death came close and stared Tubby in the face – only for the Reaper to mutter, 'Oops! My mistake! Carry on Horace – I don't want you today!'

When Tubby arrived back in England he left the Navy and became a War Correspondent and spent the rest of the war taking his camera to wherever he could get closest to the action. Indeed, Tubby, short and slender in those days, rather than short and round as he was in later years, was hyper- active and fearless when in pursuit of good pictures and a story. He was one of that rare breed of men who was always prepared to put his head in a lion's mouth – if he was certain there was something worth photographing behind the lion's teeth.

One of the more memorable occasions when Tubby was working in lion's mouth mode occurred when he landed in Nazi occupied Europe some two years before the D-Day invasion.

There is a most remarkable photograph (in the Hulton Archives) of Tubby in his war correspondent's uniform and clutching his camera – surrounded by senior Nazi naval and army officers. He is at the centre and by far the shortest man in the group, which includes Allied officers and other war correspondents. Tubby – who all his adult life looked like what he was – a true son of Abraham -- must have used his always tremendous powers of persuasion to get the authorities to allow him to be part of a truce party that was sent to St Nazaire, scene of one of World War II's greatest commando raids. The party was sent to arrange for the evacuation of civilian prisoners. For Tubby to take part in such an operation was as risky as a mouse taking up residence in a cats' home.

In a very active war Tubby went with the troops all the way to Berlin – and survived without so much as a scratch..

He travelled widely after the war and his final years were spent running the Keystone Agency in Japan.

He was in his 80s when Death stopped ignoring him, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, 'Yes, today is the day.' I like to think Tubby is somewhere in a special place, on special assignments, for a very special client – as always, his camera at the ready!



Tubby was covering another kind of war when he had his first real close encounter with Death. It was some time before Hitler set the world ablaze, and Tubby was making a picture record of the horrors of the bloody Spanish Civil War, when he had the misfortune to fall into the hands of General Franco's soldiers.

He and other prisoners were taken to a farm where they were locked up in a number of stone barns.

For two days, at dawn, Tubby and his fellow prisoners, sat in fear as they heard orders being shouted, the thud of marching boots, a brief silence, then the obvious sounds of rifles being cocked, a shouted command, then the ragged crackle of gunfire from a firing party.

Tubby said, 'Both mornings, even though we were expecting it, when the shots rang out every man in the barn jumped like puppets on a string. And my guts felt as if they were being twisted by an invisible hand. Just before the guns fired on the second morning I heard one faint voice cry, “Long live the Republic.” It was the only sound we heard from the men who were being executed.'

On the third day it was the turn of Tubby and a dozen other men in the barn with him to be marched out at dawn, lined up against the farmhouse wall and blindfolded.

The firing party got their orders, the bolts of the rifles being slammed home sounded like the snap of thunder, the firing party commander shouted the order – and the only sound was the click of rifle triggers being pulled – followed by shrieks of laughter from the soldiers.

The blindfolds were removed and the prisoners, those who could walk, marched back to the barn. Some, those who had fainted, were given a helping hand by the stronger minded, such as Tubby. This nasty example of mental cruelty by Franco's men was repeated for three mornings.

Years later, Tubby said, 'Every time I heard those triggers click my heart almost leapt out of my throat. I almost crapped myself. I never knew when it was going to be the real thing.'

Tubby's ordeal came to an end later on that third day when word came from somewhere that he was to be released, and so without ceremony, apology and camera he was sent on his way.

'I still wonder, from time to time,' he said, 'what happened to my cell mates. I like to think they were as fortunate as me.'


As I was saying to Joe and Saigo Blog - ARCHIVE

01 - As I was saying……..
02 - Store Wars
03 - The Death of a President

04 - Dunkirk – a family affair
05 - When Death says 'Not today! (Part One)
06 - When Death says 'Not today! (Part Two)

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