Chapter 12: At sea again - Find the Japanese, 1942
My second sea voyage was going to be different. This time there was no Cunard liner and few creature comforts. When we arrived at Suez from Cairo we found ourselves allocated to the Silverteak, a cargo ship slightly modified to carry passengers. A number of the holds had been left empty and were to be used for accommodation and messing with our vehicles and stores in other holds. The conversion may have been recent, as we had to go out into the town to buy the necessary china and cutlery to be able to look after ourselves. Toilet facilities were arranged by having some precarious cabin structures balanced over the side of the ship so that ‘drainage’ was direct into the sea.
The most important fighting element of the convoy was the 7th Armoured Brigade with its light tanks. Our vessel was to carry a variety of Signals sections and some Medical and Service Corps units. I met Major Bill Nicks who was commanding an Air Formation Signals Company. Promoted a short while before me he took on the duties of Officer-in-Charge of the ship’s military. He had been one of the earlier members of the Corps of Signals, trained as an operator at Maresfield and a useful Corps athlete. On the outbreak of war he had been called up as a reservist, leaving his greengrocery business in Uckfield. Full of wisdom and good humour, he was a salt-of-the-earth character who commanded respect and admiration as well as affection.
He and I were the fortunate ones aboard this fast freighter, capable of maintaining good convoy speed. There were two passenger cabins. Bill and I shared one, leaving another for the next two officers in seniority. We, the privileged four, fed with the ship’s officers and the regular close contact this provided greatly helped with the management of the ship. The Master was Jock Leask, a Shetland Islander, and a great human being who had exactly the right touch with all levels of his human cargo. One thing never discovered was when, if ever, sea captains get their sleep. We had reached Suez and it was getting late when Jock Leask came aboard with the news that we were due to set sail at six the following morning. Three or four of us were invited to join him for a drink. We chatted and helped with the consumption of the good quality spirits provided. Eight hours later we were still there when the Captain took Bill Nicks up to the bridge and the voyage started.
The first leg of our trip was uneventful if not always restful. On deck there are always events to capture attention. Land is sighted or a ship, porpoises or flying fish are playing or a whale is seen and curiosity gets everyone to their feet. Then there were the messages flashed by signalling lamp or semaphore flag from our Naval escort, which were easily read by many of our company and the news passed round the ship as quickly as the bridge itself was informed. At my then age of twenty-five it may seem strange to be talking about what the young officers were doing. I refer to the various section commanders who seemed to be making a good job of keeping their men interested, informed and busy in useful ways so far as this was possible in the restricted space available.
As we drew near to our first landfall full submarine watch was set and in due course Ceylon came into sight, a wonderful green picture after two years of the sands of Egypt. Colombo was very welcoming. Up to this time the sea traffic would not have been much busier than in peacetime. Now that the Japanese had entered the war there was suddenly a busy flow of reinforcement and evacuation traffic, with all sorts of people at risk. The inhabitants of Colombo seemed very much alive to this change and we felt very welcome. We awaited the orders for our convoy.
Those of the Armoured Brigade were sent straight on to Rangoon where they were able to play an important part in the retreat through Burma. Those of us destined for Singapore would have to wait until a naval escort could be provided. We set about solving any military problems, such as pay for all concerned, and discovering what provision there was for passers-by; then, with able assistance from Jock Leask, discovering the Galle Face Hotel with its lively Filipino Band, the Colombo Swimming Club and the best shopping area. It was an unpleasant reminder of the war when we met passengers evacuated from Singapore, some of them the wives of people we knew.
Having been warned that we would move on Thursday 12 February, we were told that afternoon that sailing was postponed to the afternoon of Sunday. I had not forgotten the directions given me by Cherrie Whitby in Cairo about her family tea-planting interest in central Ceylon and had already met their friends and connections in Colombo. I knew that Cherrie’s sister was getting married on the Saturday. Rapid organisation saw me on the train with Pru Jackson early on the Friday morning; a very lucky Friday13th for me. We travelled slowly through beautiful and magnificent country. There were rocky rivers, jungle, high mountains, acres of tea, elephants, kingfishers, water lilies, all waiting to be photographed as one passed by.
I was picked up at a nearby station by Mr Whitby and driven to Nuwara Eliya, passing on what news I could about his daughter, Cherie, and her fiancé. Not surprisingly in the circumstances I was received as a most welcome addition to the family. I was dropped at the Hill Club where comfort and service were of the highest order. Taken for a walk by way of the golf course there were the scents of pines and gorse. There was a great dinner party involving both wedding families, which broke up in the early hours. I was charmed by Georgie the bride. I had been co-opted as an usher and wedding photographer, meeting hosts of nice people and never for a moment feeling an outsider. The married couple left in due course after the ceremony. I next met them at their Golden Wedding lunch party in Goodwood.
A night train took me back to Colombo in time to have breakfast on board the Silverteak. This was Sunday 15 February 1942, the day that Singapore was surrendered. Our departure is delayed again. At last the waiting was over and on the afternoon of Monday 16th HMS Glasgow led the convoy out of the harbour and we sailed to the east, with more ships joining us next day. Orders for black scuttles and closed portholes made the cabin very stuffy at night.
On the 16th we sail east, on the 19th we sail north, on the 21st we sail south, on the 22nd we sail north again and on the 23rd HMS Dorsetshire appears, a sad casualty at a later date, and we sail west, learning on the 24th that Colombo expects us and we arrive the next day. We believe that we were heading for Rangoon, but were too late, that we then tried Java, and failed, and were finally sent back to Colombo. We have been fortunate to survive so many potentially dangerous near-misses. On the 27th rumours that we are bound for Australia are denied and we will leave in three days time.
I met one of the Wavell daughters about this time whom I had known slightly in Cairo. By this time she had seen a good deal of New Delhi and Java. She had just arrived in Colombo from Batavia, Indonesia, and they were due to leave for Delhi on the morrow.
We saw our final destination in the middle of the month of March and another ten days disappeared in waiting outside Bombay’s busy harbour, getting ashore, waiting for the Silverteak to be called in for unloading and for movement orders from Delhi. It was now eleven weeks from the date of my posting and I still did not yet know where I would find a job of work.
Eventually we left by train for Jabalpur, the centre of Signals training where we learned that we were to go to Burma and were prepared for this destination by a cholera injection. The importance of this treatment was brought home to me forcefully when one of my soldiers in Burma became seriously ill and I dropped him at a medical unit. The next day his personal effects were returned to me. He had died of cholera. It was said by a friend that he dodged a medical parade for fear of the needle.
We left Jabalpur by train for Calcutta where I had my first welcome experience of air conditioning in the Dining room of the Great Eastern Hotel. There were further delays. At this stage there was no military air service into Burma and no alternative way of travelling there. CNAC, the British-operated China National Airways Company, ran a service to Lashio and on into China. It was a dozen days or so before I was called forward on my own to make the flight. It seems that I was the only member from the Silverteak who was to reinforce our British forces in Burma at this stage.
It would have been useful during this delay to have been able to learn something about Burma. Burma is different. No European experience has any value as preparation. When I got back from the retreat from central Burma, through Assam into India I was able to see the logic of its geographical development. It is worth explaining,
The first thing to remember is that the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range on earth, lies close to the north of Burma. Great mountains only fade away slowly, producing ridges which may extend for a thousand miles or more from the main mountain area. To the west of Burma there extends a range passing through the Naga hills in Assam and the Khasi range in Burma down to the Arakan range which separates coastal Burma from more central regions. The near impossible range of a series of knife-edged 3000ft ridges and steep-sided streams was to be crossed later by 83 West African Division. 40lb head loads were the norm. For Signals this might be a charging engine or for some unfortunate a carboy, an immense bottle of similar weight, with its content of sulphuric acid for topping up lead acid batteries. Another range runs down the Chinese border by way of Lashio, down central Burma to Rangoon and further east hilly outcrops run south all the way to Malaya.
Another feature of great mountains is that they feed great rivers. Of long examples running south there are the Irrawaddy (1335 miles), the Salween (1900 miles) and the Mekong (2750 miles). The Chindwin, another major river, joins the Irrawaddy several hundred miles north of Rangoon. Even so big river steamers played a valuable part two hundred miles up the Chindwin from the junction carrying, for our forces, several trucks and hundreds soldiers at a time up river to Kalewa. River transport is important to Burma’s population and much used. Rivers are large and bridges very rare. Road and rail transport is easy in the central area to the south but not elsewhere.
Burma is segmented by mountains and rivers that present major problems for military operations. The occupation of Rangoon by the Japanese in the first week of March closed the seaborne entry to the country for Britain and India as well as for American supply to China via the Burma Road. It also closed the exit door for thousands of Indian workers who suffered immense casualties as they endeavoured to trek north via the Arakan or Assam into India. Murder and disease took a heavy toll.
In Calcutta I received orders to fly to Burma on 12 April with a baggage allowance of 33 pounds. I weighed in correctly, but with a personal weight of near nineteen stone, more than a third of which was military necessities strung around me.