The old soldier and his great escape: Grim truth behind 1942 POW ship sinking

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Arthur Betts was a lorry driver for Chiltern District Council and a popular figure in the pubs of Chalfont St Peter. Occasionally he would tell his grandson a farfetched story of how he had survived a tragedy that killed more than a thousand British prisoners of war.

He described how he broke out of the hold of a sinking ship and swam 5 miles (8km) through a hail of Japanese bullets and shark-filled waters to scale, exhausted, the cliffs of a small Chinese island where he was helped by kindly fishermen.

What made the tale all the more curious was the fact that, by his own admission, Mr Betts could not swim. ''It was only after his funeral that I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, what on earth happened?’,'' his grandson, Mark Fielding-Smith, 32, told The Times.

As he began his investigations, a similar story was emerging in China, thanks to government-sponsored studies and the research of a historian in Hong Kong. The truth, it appeared, was almost exactly as his grandfather had told it...

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