Following up an enquiry from Jean Mozley (wife of Bert Mozley, a former Derby County football player) in Canada, about a pen-friend of "yester-years", Robert Ford, I discovered, thanks to the assistance of Arthur Woolley, Duncan Topliss, David Yates and others, a bit about this local 'hero'.
I know little about his childhood except that he attended the village school, his parents lived in Church Road, and as a boy always sought excitement - nearly blowing himself up with a home made motorbike. He had always wanted to travel and joined the RAF to see the world. "A safe white-collar job seemed the fate of most grammar school boys in 1939, but I hated the idea of spending the rest of my life in a bank or office in Burton-on-Trent" (taken from his book Captured in Tibet by Robert Ford , George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, London 1957.). He was an easy victim for the recruiting posters and enlisted as an apprentice when he left school at 16 - a week later war broke out. He was posted to India in 1943 and soon became disillusioned, and jumped at the chance of the job in Lhasa that carried a temporary release from the RAF.
Robert Ford setting out from Gangtok on the journey into Tibet.
|From 1948 to 1950, he was a
Radio Officer to the Tibetan Government, charged with installing Tibet's
first Broadcasting Station and developing an internal radio communications
system. He became the first foreigner ever to be employed by the Tibetan
Government and was given an official rank in the Tibetan hierarchy.
He was based in Chamdo, NE Tibet, and called Phodo Kusho (Ford Esquire). He (call sign AC4 RF) established a radio link with a Burton operator, a tailor named Jefferies (G5 JF) that enabled his parents to speak to him every Wednesday. At the very best a letter took 5 weeks to reach them.
He was captured by the invading Chinese Communists in October 1950, having attempted to escape only to find his route blocked. He was taken back to Chamdo and from there onto Chingking, arriving on 10 December 1950. The Chinese believed they were liberating Tibet from American and British imperialism and suspected Ford of espionage and involvement in the death of Geda Lama.
An article in The Times, 5 Dec 1950, reports:
Hong Kong, December 4 - Mr R Ford, the British wireless officer who was captured by Chinese Communists in Tibet, was yesterday accused of poisoning a high lama who was deputy chairman of the Sikang Provincial Government, according to the New China News Agency. The agency alleged that Mr Ford destroyed the priest's body to hide the crime, and it accused Mr Ford of being a British secret agent. The agency alleges that Mr Ford gave the priest poisoned tea.
He was to spend nearly five years imprisoned, living in constant fear, subjected to interrogation and thought reform. On 14 May 1954 he was allowed to write to his parents for the first time. On 8 December 1954 his trial started and he was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. He was eventually released/deported on 29 May 1955, first going to Hong Kong, then later by sea to Singapore from where he flew to London.
Hong Kong - and freedom
Reunion at London Airport
I am led to believe banners were put up in the village when he came back home and that he spent some time at Rolleston pool.
Following an article in the Summer 2005 issue of the Rollestonian about Robert Ford, Joan Littlewood (nee Fisher), has kindly provided two pictures taken at the welcome home party arranged for him at Ivy House, by Captain and Mrs Welch (seen standing either side of him as he cuts the cake).
The Daily Mail reported on 23 May 1956 'World's loneliest man to marry' on 2 June, 1956 to a girl he knew at school. When he returned home he met Miss Monica Tebbett of nearby Tutbury. "We met again and fell in love," said Robert. Miss Tebbett was employed by the United Nations in New York but yesterday she was back at her home at The Paddock, Lodge Hill, Tutbury preparing for the wedding. (Article provided by Monica Porter, Missing & Found correspondent, Daily Mail).
Apparently he gave a talk at the village school about his captivity. Not sure about the date (late 1950s?) but the Truant Catcher's name at the time was Mr Law! If anyone remembers him visiting the school or can add to the information already available on this page then please contact the Webmaster.
On the occasion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's visit to London in September 1994, His Holiness invited for lunch a group, including Robert Ford, who had the privilege to live, visit and work in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion of the country in 1950, to exchange their experiences and reminiscences of that time.
Photo - left to right - Mr Kazi Sonam Togpyal, Mr Robert Ford, Mrs Ronguy Collectt (daughter of Sir Charles Bell), Dr Bruno Beger, His Holiness, Mr Henreich Harrer, Mrs Joan Mary Jehu , Mr Archibald Jack and Prof. Fosco Maraini
I have received an email from a Linden (Lovegren) Malki who wrote to say:
On page 309 of the American edition, "Wind between the Worlds", Mr Ford mentions an American named Lovegren who was in the same prison. This was my uncle, Dr Levi Lovegren, a Baptist missionary from Seattle, Washington. He had been in west China as a missionary for nearly 20 years before World War II, and then had been sent back to China as a translator for the Army during the war. After the war, he went back to a new area in west China, and did not leave when advised by the American government. When the Communists discovered an American with US Army connections out in west China, he was arrested in 1951, held in house arrest for nearly a year, and then sent to the same prison as Mr. Ford. He told me once that he had not been as vulnerable to the propaganda pressures as some of the other prisoners because he had his doctorate in educational psychology and understood what they were trying to do to him and could anticipate their methods. They also charged him with "spying" by writing letters home in the 1920's and 1930's describing the country and mentioning the weather--which was retroactively classified information. Toward the end of his time in prison some of the guards were smuggling in vegetables. He was released in 1955 in Hong Kong where his wife and daughter had been waiting for him. They came back to the US for recuperation and a speaking tour in some of the churches who had been praying for him, and then returned to Taiwan to teach at Taiwan Christian College for about five years. He then retired to his mother's house in Oregon, and lived to the age of 93 in 1981. One of his daughters is working on a book about his life.
Local Hero Robert Ford Not Forgotten
Ulrich Bihlmayer DJ9KR, a regular editor of Germany's Amateur Radio newspaper CQDL, has just written an article about Robert Ford, and was enquiring after him - he reminded me that he would be celebrating his 85th birthday today (27 March 2008).
His 'edited' articles appear here.
Three big smiles at London Airport at London Airport as son is reunited with his parents after seven years. And Robert Ford’s first words were “Oh, Mother, this is wonderful!”
The above picture first appeared in a news article “Ford Of Tibet Meets Family At Airport” (Daily Mail 23rd. June 1955). Thanks to Arnold Burston the article can be read below.
Home after four and a half years’ captivity in Red China, Robert Ford, aged 32, stepped from a plane at London Airport last night, and his first word back in Britain was “Mother”.
His mother, small, grey-haired, well-remembered, stood waving from the terrace of the airport restaurant.
She had waited there an impatient hour for the first glimpse of her son. She saw him look for her from the plane. She saw his lips form that one word.
Then she saw him hurry through the customs to her arms.
As Robert bent and hugged her he murmured “Oh, mother, this is wonderful.”
His father’s strong hand sought his. His father’s Staffordshire voice, filled with emotion, said: “Hullo, son.”
This was the moment when Robert Ford knew that he was home.
Robert was captured by the invading Chinese in October 1950 when working as a radio operator and instructor for the Tibetan Government.
He was accused of spying and other offences.
He was brought to trial last December and sentenced to ten years’ jail.
Dramatically three weeks ago he was released to find freedom across the Communist border at Hongkong.
Last night, spare, smiling, tanned by the Chinese sun,and wearing a fawn light-weight suit bought in Hongkong, he faced newsreel and TV cameras.
He told of his arrest for which no reason was given by the Chinese; of long days in prison in Chungking and Canton; of compulsory study of works by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin; and of examinations and “confessions.”
He said: “Why did they release me? I imagine they thought I’d got round to their way of thinking. But I haven’t. I’m glad to be back.”
Later sitting between his mother and father on the journey by car to London, he relaxed, squeezed his mother’s hand and stared at half-forgotten fields and buildings.
His father, Robert, a 60-year-old engine-driver in a Burton-on-Trent Brewery, and his mother Beatrice, had taken an early train from home in Rolleston-on-Dove, Staffordshire, to experience the happiest moment of their lives.
The talk was not of China or Communists or prisons. Mrs. Ford looked at her son’s smiling face and exclaimed: “He looks lovely.” Ex-prisoner Ford blushed.
He said: “Look, I’ve still got the ring.” She had given it to him before he left for Tibet seven years ago. It was loose on his third finger, right hand.
He reassured her: “I’ve lost only a little weight. But I’ve got one or two grey hairs.”
His mother looked closely. She said: “I can’t see them. You’ve still got your curls and you’ve looked after your teeth beautifully.
Robert Ford gazed about him. He said: “The traffic frightens me.”
He looked at the first British policeman he had seen for many a year and added: “But your policemen are wonderful.”
Said his mother: “I keep asking myself if it’s real.” He smiled. “It’s real all right, mother.”
The talk was of little things, homely things, news from the Staffordshire village which plans to welcome its hero home with a party in its 16th century pub.
Said Robert’s father: “Don got married, and so did Bruce and Ken.”
Laughed Robert: “Then there’s hope for me yet, though I’ve nothing in mind.”
Said his mother: “You would not tell us if you had.”
Conversation lapsed. Robert observed: “The cars have changed. They’ve gone all American.”
Then he recalled a seven-year-old memory. To his parents he said: “I must call into the British Museum and apologise.”
“Before I went away they asked me to send them some rare flowers from Tibet for their collection. But this incident got in the way.”
For a long time “this incident was not mentioned. His parents will hear his thrilling story, bit by bit, at home in their two-bedroomed cottage.
When he gets there today, Robert Ford will find his room is ready and his bed made up just the way it has been every day for the past four and a half years.
In the Fabulous Palace on the Hill I MEET TIBET’S GOD-KING
Thanks to Arnold Burston we can read more of Robert Ford's adventure. The article below (which first appeared in the Daily Mail on 30 June 1955) continues the Story of his Unparalleled Adventures in the Shangri-La Wonderland.
OUT OF THIS WORLD!
The Dalai Lama without any question at all was regarded - and probably still is today - as a living god-king.
In the total of 17 months I had spent in Lhasa up to the time of my final audience with him, I had heard people of all types and classes talking about him continually - always in bated, hushed whispers.
Numbers of houses which I visited had pictures of the then 14-year-old Dalai Lama among their idols, draped with white silk scarves as an expression of reverence and used as a sort of primitive shrine.
The ordinary Tibetan can visit the Dalai Lama for mass audiences. To the Tibetan a trip to the Lhasa palaces is like the Moslems’ pilgrimage to Mecca. From the whole vast, arid country they come at all times of the year, but particularly during the Month of Prayer in the Tibetan New Year.
Later, when I was in Chamdo, I saw them coming from places as distant as Amdo, a three-month journey from Lhasa, and Sikang, which takes two months by mule train.
Many of them, in their religious exuberance, prostrated themselves along the whole route- falling full length on the ground, crawling forward, and then prostrating themselves again - a rate of progress which prolonged any journey by several months or even years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims, particularly during the winter time.
Pilgrims, rich or poor, brought gifts with them - some using up the whole of the family wealth and treasure - as a sort of payment for the religious uplift which they derived from meeting His Holiness.
But in fact, although thousands made the pilgrimage to the Potala in winter time or to the summer palace outside Lhasa, very few Tibetans actually saw the Dalai Lama.
When received in audience, they are rushed through at high speed, heads bowed, and not daring to look at their God - Buddha Incarnate.
Only twice a year did the Dalai Lama venture outside his palaces, when he travelled from the Potala to the Jewelled Park summer palace and back again at the change of seasons.
A fabulous sight this, as he was carried by servants through the city in a gorgeous sedan chair, surrounded by his whole court, Cabinet, and Government officials, all decked out in their finery and accompanied by the mounted guards in colourful uniforms.
Visit to the city
As the procession passed through the streets crowds which lined the route would prostrate themselves, not a face daring to look at the minute, lonely figure in the sedan chair as it swayed by them.
Once, during my last year in the capital, my friend Tsarong, a member of one of the most popular families in Lhasa, had invited the Dalai Lama to make his first visit to the city, and spend some time there. Preparations went on for months beforehand. The town was in an uproar for the first “State Visit.” Streets were specially swept and decorated with oatmeal paint.
Tsarong spent a fortune in gifts of gold, silver, silks, Chinese and Russian brocades, and ivory tusks set in silver, which were apparently considered necessary and fitting to mark the occasion.
Then the Dalai Lama was carried triumphantly through the streets in his sedan chair behind packed rows of bowed heads, to the Holy “Cathedral” Temple, where he was to stay for some days, holding daily audiences for the public, and blessing visitors for many hours at a stretch.
I am invited
While he was resident in the Holy Temple, queues of pilgrims would form from dawn to sundown, shuffling silently through the streets as they waited their turn for a blessing, administered with a tasselled baton by the rosy-cheeked young boy.
When the word came in 1949 that he would receive me personally in audience, I had already met the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions and had been present at audiences which he had held for members of the British Mission staff.
The 14th. Dalai Lama at that time was a young boy of 14, guided by his regent and teachers. Although he is not supposed to give any sign, or to speak, I noticed that he frequently took sly, smiling glances at his foreign visitors, no doubt puzzled by their pale skins and protruding noses.
I never heard him speak, but he always gave the appearance, even at that early age, of taking a very intelligent interest in everything which was going on. I remember noticing he had rather large, protruding ears, held by the Tibetans to be one of the signs by which a prospective Dalai Lama is recognised.
So it happened that a few days before I was due to leave for Chamdo I found myself one crystal-clear morning riding out to the Potala winter palace, accompanied by my servants and a handful of other Tibetan Government officials, all of us mounted on ponies, for it is considered lowering for an official in Tibet to go anywhere other than by pony or mule.
We rode slowly along the road which leads out of the city and up to the palace until we reached the dismounting point, marked by a sort of oversized milestone. From there we continued on foot through the rear entrance of the palace and into a waiting-hall, where groups of monks were sitting around drinking thick tea from wooden bowls as they waited for a prayer session.
Together with our servants we were ushered into his presence. Among the officials was Kyipup who had been sent experimentally to Rugby for education, an old man still in Government service and an old friend of mine.
We were led silently into the long, rather gloomy ceremonial hall. When my eyes got used to the dim light, I immediately saw the tiny figure of His Holiness, enthroned alone on the dais at the end of the hall.
He was wearing his tall, gold peaked cap, which is his crown, and long fine-spun robes of red lavishly decorated with brocade of silk and gold.
Somehow it seemed unbelievable that such a small and rather helpless-looking figure should hold the people of this rugged, relentless country in his spell.
We had entered in Indian file, with myself at the head and the servants bringing up the rear. For when an official or nobleman is received by the Dalai Lama it is customary for all his servants to troop along, receive the same blessing as their master, and bask in his reflected glory.
As first in the line I presented the three prescribed symbolic gifts to the Dalai Lama. They were handed to me one by one by the Lord Chamberlain, and I delivered them into the childish hands of the god-king.
There was the strange edifice - like a group of butter pyramids mounted on a silver stand; a copy of the Holy Scriptures book, and the Chorten, a miniature silver replica of the High Lama’s tomb which can be seen throughout Tibet and is often plated in solid gold and encrusted with jewels.
As I handed each gift to the Dalai Lama he passed them straight on to the household official who stood behind his throne. When this was completed, I next handed over a special, fine quality white silk scarf which was taken by the Lord Chamberlain.
This done, I bowed and placed my forehead at the feet of the throne and, much to my surprise, received the two-handed blessing reserved for high officials. The Dalai Lama placed both hands on my head for a few seconds, in silent prayer.
As I left I was presented with a small red silk scarf which he knotted with his own hands. It is customary for the visitor to leave this untouched around his neck for the rest of the day, and the whole town soon knows you have been received at the palace.
At that time, the Regent was not present, but his empty throne stood beside and below that of the Dalai Lama, and the visitor was required to present the obligatory silk scarf to the empty throne. Then I returned to my seat on cushions to the left of the throne and the ceremonial taking of rice and tea started.
The tea, incidentally, is provided by the guest and not by the host. We had had to organise that earlier on with the Lord Chamberlain. We sat sipping tea and nibbling at rice.
Custom requires that Tibetan officials prostrate themselves three times before the throne. I was excused this, and Kyipup was allowed to act as my “stand-in.” Then he offered tea to the Dalai Lama, after first drinking some himself, just to ensure there would be no accidents.
Shortly after the young Dalai Lame rose to leave, and we stood up and bowed; then we filed silently out into the brilliant sunshine. As he passed by us, he inclined his head and gave a broad smile.
The whole ceremony, from the time of going into the palace, had lasted perhaps 15 minutes. Naturally I felt very honoured at being received in that way. The whole ceremony impressed me as one of the most colourful and awe-inspiring of my stay in Tibet.
The next day we started on the long trek to Chamdo, and I never again saw the all-powerful religious leader of Tibet. The only news I heard of him since then was reports and photographs in Chinese newspapers when he was on a visit in Peking last winter.
I never did meet the Panchen Lama, who ranks as No. 2 to the Dalai. The isolated seat of the Panchen Lama at Shigatse, on the Tsang-Po, about two weeks’ march south and west from Lhasa, was still vacant. The old Panchen Lama had died in China in 1933 and the new re-incarnation had not yet been selected.
However, while I was still in Lhasa, the battle for succession was even then beginning to produce faint rumblings from across the Chinese border.
There had been at that time three young candidates for succession as Panchen Lama. However, one of them had recently died, leaving one in Lhasa and another across the border in Taing-Hai, who was being “groomed” by the Chinese authorities.
The Chinese even went so far as to suggest they should send him in to take over as Panchen.
As a result of Lhasa’s objections, the Chinese were forced to hold their hand but, following the invasion, I learned they had installed their puppet candidate in Shigatse, thereby ensuring a considerable degree of control over Tibetan affairs without appearing to interfere.
I do not believe rumours - which I have only heard since coming out of China - that the Dalai Lama had been arrested and removed to China. From the Communists’ own viewpoint, that would have been a foolish move and calculated to cause considerable unrest among the Tibetans. More probable it is that the Dalai Lama still lives at Potala, and in the Jewel Park, subtly “advised” and guided by men of Peking’s choosing. For he that has the ear of the Dalai Lama controls the mountain kingdom.
And now an Earthquake to shatter my stand-by Escape Plan
Thanks to Arnold Burston we can read another article about Robert Ford's adventure (which first appeared in the Daily Mail on 2 July 1955).
This is it! The Reds break into Shangri-La
It was around about this time, May 1950, that I started thinking that Chamdo might possible not be the most healthy spot to stay in during an invasion, and began considering the possibility of returning to the South.
My original contract with the Tibetan Government had been for two years, and I had just renewed it. Although I was not under any obligation to stay there, I didn’t feel it possible simply to walk out and abandon the Tibetans.
My radio link was, without question, the only possible way they could get to know progress of the invasion. The only alternative would have been by mounted courier who, riding continuously day and night, stopping only to change horses, could have done it in 15 days.
In the spring however I started studying my maps and planning an emergency escape route to the south to Dzayol and across the pass into India. The plan was to use this escape route if we were cut off by the invaders.
But in July there was a devastating earthquake with its epicentre at Namche Bawa, and the whole frontier area was wrecked. We even felt the explosion and a slight rocking in Chamdo. At Loluchong on the route to Lhasa, houses were toppled and the Tibetans wagged their heads, saying: “The gods have come to help us.”
It was a 20-day march to the Indian border and a further 15 days, mostly on foot through uninhabited mountain areas, to Sadiya. News came through that the whole terrain had been altered by the earthquake. We heard the Brahmaputra had been blocked and other rivers had altered their courses. The escape plan was abandoned.
In September my good friend Lhalu, the governor, finished his tour of duty in his post and was withdrawn to Lhasa. I was sorry to see Lhalu go as he finally left with an enormous caravan and equipped with a portable radio which his successor, Ngabo, had brought with him.
After my capture I learned that Ngabo was one the officials sent to Peking to negotiate surrender and settlement of Tibet.
By the time October came I felt the dangers of a further advance into Chamdo and beyond by the Chinese was unlikely. Winter was advancing quickly, and it seemed unlikely that the Chinese would attempt the gruelling march to Lhasa in winter conditions.
I was right - but not quite right. As events proved, they took Chamdo in October, then lay quietly in the east and north east, and very little was heard of them until the following spring.
I doubt whether there were more than 3,000 Tibetan troops on the frontier area at the time and, judging by news that came our way, they were being confronted by a force which probably outnumbered them 100 to one.
News of small-scale clashes came from the Yangtse River area which was five days’ march away. We knew serious things were happening, but out in this territory without communications, it was almost impossible to follow developments exactly. We had only the vaguest idea of where the enemy was.
Although heavily outnumbered, the Tibetans fought courageously - fighting for the Dalai Lama. On several occasions we heard that Chinese troops had leapt into the icy river waters to escape the Tibetan soldiers.
I see that Heinrich Harrer has said in Seven Years in Tibet, which I read on my way home, that Governor Ngabo sent a message to Lhasa asking for permission to surrender Chamdo to the enemy. I was never told this and would not have known whether I had sent it, since all official traffic was coded.
But, for long, Chamdo had been a town of unrest. Tension was mounting, and the local lamas were consulted. Some monks went into the mountains for a period of solitary meditation, hoping to return with the answer to the community’s problem.
But everybody stayed put in Chamdo. There was no attempt to flee for the simple reason that for them there was really nowhere to go.
One Tuesday night, late in October Ngabo had called a conference of officials to decide on a course of action. Coded messages were sent to Lhasa informing them that Chamdo was almost surrounded. The governor asked me to bring the last remaining portable transmitter if we left and asked me what transport I would require.
The next morning the little town was in pandemonium. Almost everybody who had anything was trekking up to the monastery above the town taking any valuables they had for safekeeping.
I went early to consult the governor on a course of action and discovered that he had already left even earlier that morning with a large caravan and without bothering to mention the fact to me.
I hastily put some food supplies together and with my servants hit the track northwards along the River Ngolm in pursuit of him.
I rode from morning until late evening and eventually caught up Ngabo and his large caravan. He seemed surprised to see me. I had left in a hurry, bringing a few emergency rations, a quantity of drinking chocolate, and my cameras. Everything else, including a lot of valuable equipment, we were obliged to abandon.
Around nightfall we met a messenger who had ridden from Riwoche, which is several days’ march to the north of where we were, through the most desolate terrain, averaging about 15,000-16,000 feet altitude. He told us that Riwoche had already been taken without a fight by Chinese forces sweeping down from Yushu.
This looked black and we knew from then on that the chances were that our retreat from Chamdo would be cut off.
It was bitterly cold as we continued riding, hoping to reach Lolungchung possibly by the following night. If we reached Lolungchung without meeting invading troops, according to the map, then our escape route would still be open.
About 1 a.m., in moonlight, we crossed yet another mountain pass through a biting gale that cut right through the fur-lined R.A.F. flying jacket I was wearing.
I discarded this jacket shortly before being captured since I thought the Chinese would immediately assume I was a military man in semi-disguise.
We dropped down from the pass, the ponies by this time becoming slower and slower, for we had been on the march for some 18 hours.
In the small village below, we stopped to brew some tea and eat some biscuits as we waited for some of the party, including my own servants, to catch us up. They never did, for they had lost their way over the mountain pass.
As we sat warming our hands round the steaming bowls, a messenger came in from the direction of Lolungchung, and said: “The road is cut.” So, after months of uncertainty, this was it! I must say at 1 o’clock on a bitter morning, crouching in a Tibetan mountain village, I didn’t much relish the idea either of capture by the Chinese or of decapitation by the border tribes.
For we still were not absolutely certain whether our retreat had been halted by the Chinese armies or by local Khamba tribesmen, who were known to have their own very definite ideas about running a border area and were frequently in revolt against Lhasa authority.
They had been known on numerous occasions to lop off the heads of their victims - who might be innocent travellers - first and ask questions afterwards. Finally we decided to make for the nearest monastery. If the Khambas were around, we reasoned, they would not shed blood in the monastery.
By this time we had been going continuously for nearly 24 hours, with nothing to eat but a few biscuits.
We picked up a local guide to take us to the monastery which lies near Lamda, in a beautifully wooded valley which is a riot of wild life, in grass which is waist-high. Because the Tibetan is forbidden by his religion to kill, the whole of the country is one big game preserve. The wildest-looking animals, with the possible exception of the wild yak, will continue to graze and feed as you approach them, for they have never heard a gun shot.
In the monastery we were cordially received and fed. Shortly after dawn our servants arrived - they had been on a circuitous route, fleeing from Communist troops advancing from the East.
The field was being narrowed down. Our retreat was being cut off from the East and by advancing troops from the North West.
I toyed with the idea of making a dash alone, leaving the roads and trying to hit southwards across the uncharted hills and work my way round back to the Lhasa route. But I looked at the ponies that were more exhausted than I was after 24 hours’ march, and decided that I would probably end up by being completely lost among the ice peaks.
I resigned myself to capture with the others - all of them Tibetan officials from Chamdo and their servants. Even the monks by then were becoming agitated, running round and round in near-panic, hardly able to compose themselves to prayer.
The following afternoon one young monk came running in from the valley and propelled me towards a window. My heart missed a couple of beats as I saw a column of perhaps 200 Chinese troops riding steadily up the valley, led by Khamba guides.
They carried rifles, the familiar Russian-type tommy-gun, and a type of Bren-gun. They halted a few hundred yards from the monastery, deployed, and threw a cordon round the buildings. We were surrounded.
I suspected my stay with the Chinese was going to be a long one
Thanks to Arnold Burston we can read another article about Robert Ford's adventure (which first appeared in the Daily Mail on 4 July 1955).
CAPTURED: General Wang Starts My Ordeal
The Chinese troops tightened their cordon round the monastery and gradually closed in until they were within a few dozen yards.
Then their officer came in, disappeared into a room with Ngabo and negociated the surrender of Tibetan troops in the area.
By this time I was quietly cursing myself for not having left Chamdo a few days earlier. Yet, when I examined the situation I still don’t see how that would have been possible without being guilty of quitting my post.
At all events, when the troops turned their attention to me, taking my binoculars from me and locking me in a room apart, I had a suspicion that my stay with the Chinese was going to be of some duration.
The binoculars, of course, was not a good beginning. According to Communist rules of procedure the world over, anybody carrying a large pair of binoculars and cameras is automatically a spy, with no arguments brooked.
They did not find any cameras on me for at the last moment, before the Chinese had surrounded the monastery, my servants carrying the cameras had taken off at high speed and melted quietly into the landscape.
The troops who captured us were not at all surprised to find the governor and his retinue there; they had been warned to look out for them in the area. Nor were they the slightest bit surprised to find a Westerner in an area where no more than half a dozen white men had ever been before.
It was well known by the Chinese that I was operating a radio station in Chamdo and, as I learned later, there was a brisk competition among invading units, with myself as the unwitting trophy.
Very little was being said by anybody at this stage. The Chinese commander gave me a cigarette, saying in an attempt at English: “You, foreign man, cigarette?” I needed it as I had never needed a cigarette before, even if it wasn’t an English brand.
The following day another force of Chinese troops arrived from the east, having come through Chamdo itself. Our captors had swept down across nearly impassable country from Riwoche to the north west, and the two forces linked up at Lamda Monastery after establishing radio contact.
The governor and his leading advisers and myself were returned to Chamdo that day with some of the troops who had been sent up specially to collect us. before leaving the monastery, however, I was fascinated to see how the Chinese handled the problem of captured Tibetan troops, many of whom had taken refuge in the monastery buildings.
After they had surrendered the commanding officer gave them a good, long, “pep talk” telling them that Tibetans and Chinese were really friends and had no quarrel at all. The invaders apparently had come into Tibet because it was necessary to free them from “imperialist warmonger influence” (with a significant nod in my direction).
The rather bemused and bedraggled Tibetans were then given safe-conduct passes for Lhasa, pocket money of 10 dayangs each (the Chinese dayang was theoretically worth about 4s. in those days), and sent packing on their way.
This, I discovered, was standard procedure for treatment of Tibetan troops, and was regarded by the Chinese to be of considerable propaganda value.
It also relieved the Chinese of having to deal with a particularly difficult P.-o-W. problem since the Tibetan Army always moved about the country from action to action, taking with it wives, children, every imaginable household necessity, and a lumbering slow yak transport.
Upon return to Chamdo we found the place in a turmoil. Hundreds of little Japanese-made one- and two-man bivouacs had sprung up all round the governor’s house. The Chinese Army had requisitioned the governor’s house and turned it into their HQ, and troops had been lodged in the Government offices.
We discovered that every empty house in the town, with the exception of my own, had been looted by the local Kham between our exit and the arrival of the Chinese troops.
The governor and I were taken back to his house and wheeled up before General Wang, commander of the 2nd Field Army, whose forces were in the area. We sat for a while with General Wang, sipping tea, while he unburdened himself of another brief talk, the gist of which was again that they had found themselves compelled to enter Tibet to “clear out imperialist elements from the country and reunite the people with their motherland.”
The Chinese had always regarded this area of Tibet as part of Sikang Province, and therefore Chinese territory, but the dispute between the two countries had been allowed to simmer down for a few years. Nevertheless, on most maps printed in the United States and Britain, the Tibetan border is still marked as being only a few miles from Lhasa.
Having got this little speech off his chest, General Wang turned to me and asked me if I had any opinions on the matter. I thought it more prudent to have none, and kept my mouth shut.
During these few days in Chamdo, I met two Indian operators, Wangda Tsering and Dronyer Sharpa who had been with me in Chamdo and had been unable to escape.
A few days later we filed out of Chamdo for the last time on mountain ponies with an escort of about 100 troops, en route for Kantse, to the east, well inside China. This was another gruelling march of the sort to which I was now pretty accustomed, despite the cold.
Now a prisoner of the Communists, I was not, of course, able to keep a diary of the march and, therefore, was unable to keep count of the days. But there seemed to be about 14 of them before we eventually reached the end of the motor-road about 150 miles outside Kantse.
Rice by air
Sometimes the day’s march started as early as 3 a.m. and we kept going until dark, existing on a diet of dried meat and tsampa, which we had with us, yak meat, and vegetables which we bought en route, and rice which our captors gave us.
I got the impression that the troops were tough and well used to the cold. Most of them marched in footwear rather resembling a type of American Basketball boot and wearing extra padded cotton uniforms.
They looked to me like a highly mobile army with no problems of supply, and I am convinced if a Western type of army had attempted the invasion which they had accomplished - from China across the mountains into the Tibetan plateau - they would have found themselves halted, unable to get any sort of transport through and therefore unable to supply the fighting troops.
From the end of the motor road they carried us the last 150 miles into Kantse by truck along the highway which had only recently been extended from Chungking, via Chengtu, the capital of Szechuan province.
At Kantse, where we stayed 10 days, I saw one of the Chinese Army’s supply techniques in operation.
There was no possible place at Kantse for aircraft to land, and yet rice had to be flown as far forward as possible for the advancing Communist troops. So they parcelled up the rice in leather-bag containers containing about 60-80 lbs. in each bag (one yak-load), put this into a second outer container, and loaded the bags on aircraft at Chengtu.
The bags were flown to a dropping-ground at Kantse and, from a low altitude, unceremoniously shoved out of the open door of the aircraft, without parachutes, on to a dropping area.
While I was in Kantse, a Chinese came secretly to me, and in halting English told me: “I am a Christian. I sorry about you, but hope you will be all right.” In the tense atmosphere of distrust and suspicion I couldn’t help admiring that man for daring to say that to a foreigner.
A further 10 day journey - there seemed no end to my travels at this time - took me through Kanting, Ya-an, and Chengtu, the capital of Szechuan, until we arrived in Chungking, early in December 1950.
I was shifted with an armed escort and taken in bone-breaking army trucks of Russian manufacture. Near Kanting, we passed a stone which marks the old Sino-Tibetan frontier, but which has since been disregarded by both nations.
Along the route we passed thousands of coolies at work on the Chungking-Chengtu military railway which was finally completed in 1952.
At Chungking, the last of the K.M.T.* capitals, they did not put me straight into prison, but, together with the two Indians, I was put under house arrest, with an armed guard patrolling outside. One of the Indians, Wangda Tsering, had brought his Tibetan wife with him. Later in prison she gave birth to a baby. The Communist prison guards were terrified when they realised what was going to happen and packed her off to the local hospital to have the child.
The Communists quickly moved me to a room on my own while still under house arrest, and the preliminary investigations started.
At first they were quite simple and didn’t cause me any worry. Simple cross-examination about where I had been and the routes I had travelled.
It was obviously very difficult for any Communist, particularly a Chinese Communist, to believe that an Englishman would be stupid enough to go and live in the Eastern extremities of Tibet for non-subversive reasons. There was obviously something far more sinister in it than that, they told themselves, or no Englishman would have endured the discomforts.
At that time I knew no Chinese and the interrogations were carried out through an interpreter. This young man once told me he had been in India during the war as a liaison officer between Indian and British troops on the one hand and Chinese (K.M.T.) on the other in connection with the Burma Hump airlift.
But when the Communists grabbed control of most of the country he had been “re-educated” and made to “atone for his error.” The error - coming into contact with British and Indian troops. But they still seemed to find his resultant knowledge of English useful to their cause.
On Christmas day 1950, for no apparent reason since it is not a Chinese festival, they gave us roast duck for dinner, and we were also allowed to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Then in February the thing I had for long been dreading happened. I was shifted to a military prison and flung into solitary confinement. The pressure was due to begin, I knew.
* The K.M.T (Kuomintang), the Chinese Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, ruled most of China until it was defeated by the Communists in 1949, when it retreated to Taiwan. [Note by Arnold Burston]
My Ten-week Trek into Utter Loneliness
Thanks to Arnold Burston we can read another article about Robert Ford's adventure (which first appeared in the Daily Mail on 31 July 1955).
In Tibet you don’t simply pack a bag and set off on a journey. That would be considered asking for trouble.
I was setting out on an overland journey that was to occupy upwards of 10 weeks, covering 700 miles of some of the toughest terrain in the world. Some of the route had been travelled before me by two other Westerners, but none had yet covered the entire length of the Chang Lam, or northern route to Chamdo.
The Dalai Lama had seen fit to bless my journey. The Lamas then had to be consulted to pick an “auspicious” day for the journey to commence.
The business of finding “auspicious” days for journeys tends to make one more complication to travelling in Tibet. But since few people are ever in a hurry, they are rarely concerned at delaying departure.
Dodging the bad luck
After seeing the Dalai Lama it is not considered provident to delay the start beyond a certain limited period, and should the Lamas decide that there is no excellent day available during that period, the traveller leaves on a second-rate or “good” day, hoping for the best.
There are other ways round this as I later discovered in Chamdo when I had to send a portable radio transmitter and crew urgently to Tengko. The High Lama said he was sorry but there were no auspicious days in sight on the calendar except for one which would not give sufficient time for preparation. The journey would have to be postponed.
So a young Tibetan clerk was sent out on the one available “auspicious” day and ordered to ride out some miles out along the route, halt, and then return. The full caravan left a few days later, confident that the gods had been fooled.
By the time we had assembled the caravan, I found we had more than 100 mules, ponies and horses, a sundry collection of porters, Tibetan officials and their families, servants, cooks, and a party of 12 armed guards to protect us on the way.
It was an impressive sight as we at last we pulled out of Lhasa, after days of farewell parties, being showered with gifts, and receiving visitors wishing us a successful journey.
“One for the road”
I felt rather like an Oriental potentate, scattering handfuls of coins to crowds who lined the route to see us off - another Tibetan custom.
On the way we passed tents beside the road which had been erected by friends of the Tibetan officials who were in the caravan in order to give them a resounding send-off. It took the best part of two days before the last “one for the road” had been downed and the Tibetans caught up the train again.
Transport was our major problem in the weeks which followed. We were not taking our own pack animals the whole distance, and a fresh batch had to be hired each day en route or at most for three or four days at a time.
We would send envoys ahead to the next settlement, who would arrange fresh transport. For weeks we saw no trees, trudging slowly across a bare, windswept plain, occasionally traversing difficult patches of swampy ground, and picking our way through innumerable herds of grazing yaks.
This vast, north-eastern plain is inhabited almost solely by nomadic tribes who wander about the area with their yak herds, pitching their yak-skin tents where it suits them. We frequently shared their camps to save pitching our own, and I found them tough, jovial, and hospitable folk, not frightened by a camera.
Tea and biscuits
After nearly two weeks’ travelling we reached Nagghuka, a tiny, insignificant town - a village by English standards - which is nevertheless important as the principal trading station for the whole of Northern Tibet.
It was there that I made the mistake of shaving. The night prior to our departure it snowed steadily, leaving a thick carpet on the route. But for the whole of the next day we marched under a brilliant, cloudless sky, across a virgin field of snow.
When I woke the next day, my face was paralysed solid. I was unable to move a muscle without the skin cracking like thick parchment burnt to a cinder by the ultra-violet reflections off the snow.
At long last, beyond the lost horizon, after the gruelling 10-week march from Lhasa, we suddenly dropped down a ravine and came to Chamdo, a grey, drab-looking group of rammed-mud huts, huddled in a deep ravine at the confluence of two rivers.
At first sight, the whole town, which lies more than two miles above sea level, looked as if you could pick it up and transport it elsewhere on a decent-sized mule train.
We were met by an emissary sent out by the local governor. He had pitched a tent, brewed up some English tea, produced a tin of sweet biscuits, and went through the now familiar scarf routine before we continued down the valley into the town.
They had hardly recovered from the shock of witnessing the arrival of their first Westerner when they were further confused next morning as I left my house to call on the Governor.
I had arrived wearing a considerable growth of beard, but the next day as I set out towards the Governor’s house it was a more or less suave and very clean-shaven face which they saw.
Governor Lhalu turned out to be a pleasant man who held Cabinet rank and was one of the four Ministers who came next in rank in the Tibetan hierarchy beneath the Lama and the Regent. He made no secret of the fact that he was very concerned about the news that was sifting across the uninhabited frontier regions from China.
He was convinced that India was planning to help Tibet in the event of an invasion, but I was not able to bring him any such comforting reassurance from Lhasa. On more than one occasion, Lhalu told me: “We will fight through if we have to ...” But he was removed from his post before invasion came.
We set up the station in a house away from town, and started in earnest to uncrate the larger equipment to set up the permanent R/T station. It was a two storey affair and I was given the top-floor apartment. It never occurred to me at the time that this factor would play a part in months of interrogation and mental persuasion which I received in Chinese prisons.
The purpose of my transfer to Chamdo was twofold - to set up an official telegraph link which would keep the governor in permanent contact with Lhasa and to open a commercial cable telephone service.
I really did begin to feel like the world’s loneliest Briton about this time. The nearest European was two months’ riding away, and Chamdo was not exactly crammed with modern amenities.
During my 16 months’ stay in Chamdo, mail from the outside world came through rarely and erratically. If we were lucky, it arrived by courier from Lhasa about once a month. Usually we were not lucky.
Before long, in order to keep some little link with the world outside the mountain barriers, I had opened up Station AC4RF and spent off-duty hours on the air as an amateur “ham.”
Almost before I had finished my first transmission onto the blue there was a whole string of hams from England and Australia, the United States and South Africa literally lining up on the ether to “talk” with me.
My first calls
For years Tibet had been the great unknown challenge to amateur radio men throughout the world, and suddenly they found me on the air transmitting from a spot that wasn’t even marked up on most people’s home atlases.
One of the first to establish contact with me was Station G5JF, which returned my call sign, gave his own, and then added as an afterthought ” ... from Burton-on-Trent, England.” I could hardly believe my pencil, which raced across the sheet turning the Morse into plain language.
Sitting there in my draughty hut, two miles up in the centre of Asia, and surrounded by 16,000 foot peaks, it didn’t seem possible that I was actually listening to somebody tapping his operating key in his warm bedroom probably a few streets from where my parents lived.
Charles Jeffries - the Burton ham
For the next few months Mr. Jeffries, the tailor - for that was who it was at the other end - kept me in fairly close touch with my parents, giving them news of me and sending messages from them. Since there was no other way I could have got news from them, I felt sure that the commercial authorities, who frown on such amateur “traffic”, would turn their faces the other way for once.
Not my job
In the spring of 1950 the vague rumblings of the Chinese army across the frozen frontier became distinctly more audible.
As I have said earlier, my original contract to set up radio links in the most distant corners of Tibet was in no way intended as an anti-invasion warning system, though it was difficult to persuade the Chinese of this. The fact remains that I was offered my contract as a Tibetan Civil servant in 1947.
Nevertheless there had always been British influence in Tibet since the days of Younghusband, and balancing this there had recently been a considerable increase in Chinese (K.M.T.) influence, which caused Tibetans to be mildly concerned about their eastern frontiers.
There was no clearly defined frontier but a vague, uninhabited, forbidding area where tribal rule held sway and where the local headman might or might not heed the interests of Lhasa.
News arrived slowly from the upper reaches of the Yangtse River, but scraps of news filtered back via traders and from the few Tibetan Army units that were scattered around the frontier area, pathetically thin on the ground.
On the Governor’s instructions, in May 1950 I sent out two of my Indian operators to set up a portable station at Tengko, on the Yangtse River frontier. The object of this move was to provide a link for the local authorities back to Chamdo, and ultimately to Lhasa. But the Indians were transmitting from there for hardly a month before they and the equipment were captured by advancing Chinese armies.
Meanwhile, a new tenant had arrived in the house outside Chamdo to take possession of the flat below mine. He was a Lama who had come from China and I saw very little of him. However, only two weeks after arriving, he died suddenly under circumstances of some mystery. It was thought he may have been poisoned, but I never dreamed at that time that I would be accused of poisoning.
A Local Hero: Ford Of Tibet (Rollestonian article by Arnold Burston – Spring 2013)
Following a recent telephone call from a researcher in Vermont, it struck me that the adventures of a once-famous Rollestonian deserved a wider audience. When Robert Ford returned to England on 22nd June 1955, he had spent four and a half years as a prisoner of the Chinese. He told some of his fascinating story to the Daily Mail.
Robert Webster Ford was born in Burton 1923. His father Robert, a brewery engine-driver, and his mother Beatrice lived in Church Road, Rolleston. He attended Rolleston Primary School and Burton Grammar and, at the age of 16, enlisted as an apprentice in the RAF. He was posted to India in 1943. When the War ended, Robert joined the British Political Mission in Lhasa as a radio officer and, two years later, as the first foreigner to be employed by the Tibetan government, set up Tibet’s first broadcasting station. While he was there, he had the unusual experience of meeting a god face-to-face. Here in his own words are some extracts from his story.
“Numbers of houses I visited had pictures of the 14-year-old Dalai Lama among their idols, draped with white scarves as an expression of reverence and as a sort of primitive shrine.
“The ordinary Tibetan can visit the Dalai Lama for mass audiences. From the whole vast, arid country they come at all times of the year, but particularly during the Month of Prayer in the Tibetan New Year. Later I saw them coming from places as distant as Amdo, a three-month journey from Lhasa, and Sikang, which takes two months by mule train. Many of them, in their religious exuberance, prostrated themselves along the whole route- falling full length on the ground, crawling forward, and then prostrating themselves again - a rate of progress which prolonged any journey by several months or even years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims, particularly during the winter time. Pilgrims, rich or poor, brought gifts with them - some using up the whole of the family wealth and treasure - as a sort of payment for the religious uplift which they derived from meeting His Holiness.
“But in fact, although thousands made the pilgrimage, very few Tibetans actually saw the Dalai Lama. When received in audience, they are rushed through at high speed, heads bowed, and not daring to look at their God - Buddha Incarnate. Only twice a year did the Dalai Lama venture outside his palaces, when he travelled from the Potala to the Jewelled Park summer palace and back again at the change of seasons. A fabulous sight this, as he was carried by servants through the city in a gorgeous sedan chair, surrounded by his whole court, cabinet, and government officials, all decked out in their finery and accompanied by mounted guards in colourful uniforms.
“As the procession passed through the streets crowds which lined the route would prostrate themselves, not a face daring to look at the minute, lonely figure in the sedan chair as it swayed by them. Preparations went on for months beforehand. The town was in an uproar. Streets were specially swept and decorated with oatmeal paint. Tsarong [Robert’s friend] spent a fortune in gifts of gold, silver, silks, Chinese and Russian brocades, and ivory tusks set in silver, which were apparently considered necessary and fitting to mark the occasion. Then the Dalai Lama was carried triumphantly through the streets in his sedan chair behind packed rows of bowed heads, to the Holy “Cathedral” Temple, where he was to stay for some days, holding daily audiences for the public, and blessing visitors for many hours at a stretch.”
A Local Hero: Ford Of Tibet 2 (Rollestonian article by Arnold Burston – Autumn 2013)
Following my article about Robert Ford in the Spring Rollestonian, through the Village Website, I made contact with his son Giles who provided me with up-to-date information. He tells me that his father is keeping well and celebrated his 90th birthday in March - a special birthday in many ways.
A reception was held on 23rd March at the Kailash Centre in London, hosted by Mr. Thublen Samdup, the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who said “Mr. Robert Ford is a part of Tibetan History. He is perhaps the only surviving Westerner who witnessed a free and independent Tibet. We are delighted to be holding this reception in his honour.”
On 13th April in Fribourg, Switzerland, Robert received the International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth Award by His Holiness. In a moving private ceremony, Robert was presented with a Tibetan butter lamp by the Dalai Lama, whom Robert had seen when His Holiness was only 11 years old.
I was also pleased to receive pictures of Mr. Ford wearing a traditional white silk scarf, as well as his CBE, with His Holiness in his saffron robes.
Arnold Burston July 2013.
In this episode, Robert meets the god-king
“The Dalai Lama without any question at all was regarded as a living god-king. In the total of 17 months I had spent in Lhasa up to the time of my final audience with him, I had heard people talking about him continually - always in hushed whispers. Numbers of houses which I visited had pictures of the then 14-year-old Dalai Lama among their idols, draped with white silk scarves as an expression of reverence and used as a sort of primitive shrine.
“The ordinary Tibetan can visit the Dalai Lama for mass audiences. From the whole vast, arid country they come from places as distant as Amdo, a three-month journey from Lhasa, and Sikang, which takes two months by mule train. Many of them, in their religious exuberance, prostrated themselves along the whole route- falling full length on the ground, crawling forward, and then prostrating themselves again - a rate of progress which prolonged any journey by several months or even years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims, particularly during the winter time. But in fact, although thousands made the pilgrimage, very few Tibetans actually saw the Dalai Lama. When received in audience, they are rushed through at high speed, heads bowed, and not daring to look at their God.
“When the word came in 1949 that he would receive me personally in audience, I had already met the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions and had been present at audiences which he had held for members of the British Mission staff.
“So it happened that a few days before I was due to leave for Chamdo I found myself one morning riding out to the Potala winter palace, accompanied by my servants and other Tibetan Government officials, all of us mounted on ponies, for it is considered lowering for an official in Tibet to go anywhere other than by pony or mule. We rode slowly until we reached the dismounting point. From there we continued on foot through the rear entrance of the palace and into a waiting-hall: together with our servants we were ushered into his presence. We were led silently into the long, rather gloomy ceremonial hall. When my eyes got used to the dim light, I immediately saw the tiny figure of His Holiness, enthroned alone on the dais at the end of the hall. He was wearing his tall, gold peaked cap, which is his crown, and long fine-spun robes of red lavishly decorated with brocade of silk and gold.
“Somehow it seemed unbelievable that such a small and rather helpless-looking figure should hold the people of this rugged, relentless country in his spell. As first in the line I presented the three prescribed symbolic gifts to the Dalai Lama. They were handed to me one by one by the Lord Chamberlain, and I delivered them into the childish hands of the god-king. There was the strange edifice - like a group of butter pyramids mounted on a silver stand; a copy of the Holy Scriptures book, and the Chorten, a miniature silver replica of the High Lama’s tomb which can be seen throughout Tibet. As I handed each gift to the Dalai Lama he passed them straight on to the household official who stood behind his throne. When this was completed, I next handed over a special, fine quality white silk scarf which was taken by the Lord Chamberlain. This done, I bowed and placed my forehead at the feet of the throne and, much to my surprise, received the two-handed blessing reserved for high officials. The Dalai Lama placed both hands on my head for a few seconds, in silent prayer. As I left I was presented with a small red silk scarf which he knotted with his own hands. It is customary for the visitor to leave this untouched around his neck for the rest of the day and the whole town soon knows you have been received at the palace.”
Robert Ford died at 6am on Friday 20 September 2013. He was 90.
A big pity that he did not live a few more days to hear the radio programmes with him on.
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Last updated: 28 October 2013