WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

Find your family’s star stories

It’s exciting watching the stars of Who Do You Think You Are? as they delve into their family history. But it’s not just celebrities who have incredible stories in their past. Discover the TV-worthy tales in your own family tree with our expert advice.

Alan Cumming

Life with the volume turned up

Alan Cumming was determined to learn more about his maternal grandfather, Tom Darling. His mother had a number of mementoes from her father’s military career, including a bravery medal, and believed he died in an accident in Malaya (now called Malaysia). In finding the truth, Alan uncovered a story of courage, heartbreak and raw emotion.

The actor met a historian in Edinburgh to learn more about Tom’s first years in the Army. He discovered he served as a motorbike despatch rider during World War II, carrying messages between different units in northern France.

Top TipTOP TIP
If your ancestors fought and died for their country in World War II, check our Army Roll of Honour, 1939-1945. This list of British casualties includes details of your forbears’ ranks, medals and the places they were killed.


Battle of KohimaThe battalion’s war diary revealed how Tom earned his medal. It described his incredible bravery getting weapons and ammunition to his comrades in the Battle of La Bassee, as he drove continuously across an open road under mortar and machine gun fire. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain, as the battle was lost, and many of his friends and allies were killed. Tom was eventually evacuated from Dunkirk.

Alan’s grandfather was given just two years to recover before he was sent back into battle, this time in India. His personal officer’s book revealed he was part of the ferocious Battle of Kohima against the Japanese, where he sustained serious shrapnel wounds. The book stated he was treated at Deolali - well known for housing psychiatric patients. However, this section was removed from his Army service record, perhaps because of the stigma attached to mental illness at the time.

Top TipTOP TIP
World War II service records are kept by the Ministry of Defence and only available to immediate relatives. Things are easier for World War I - we have two large collections of comprehensive service records


Alan met an Army veteran who served with his relative. He heard “Big Tam” was a tough, battle-hardened figure who was respected by his comrades. Sadly, the deadly hand-to-hand combat with ferocious Japanese enemies badly affected his mental state.

The shocks continued. Alan learned his grandfather briefly returned home to his family after the War, only to leave them again to join the Malayan Police Force in 1949 - during the conflict between British colonial forces and native guerillas. His application form revealed he was formerly separated from his wife. The actor met a man who served with Tom, and heard his relative’s role involved lining up the bodies of terrorists his allies had killed, to act as a deterrent to other locals.
Malay

This wasn’t the worst of it. The former policeman also had information about Tom’s death aged just 35. Apparently this wasn’t an accident at all - he shot himself in the back of the head during a game of Russian roulette. It seemed he played this deadly game regularly, suggesting a troubled state of mind. His cause of death was confirmed by a telegram at the Malaysian National Archives.

Top TipTOP TIP
You can uncover details of your ancestors’ passing by ordering their death certificates. Start by finding them in our death indexes, then order their certificates direct from our site.


There was a happier conclusion, as two local men described the esteem Alan’s grandfather was held in, and showed him a street named Darling Walk in his honour. However, Alan was clearly upset by the way combat stress affected his grandfather’s life, and led to his early demise.

To read our opinions on Alan's story - and share your thoughts - see our blog

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WDYTYA? TV Episode on BBC1

Alan Cumming: Monday 13th September

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