Chapter 13: Burma

Waiting for take-off in the small Dakota for half an hour, sitting in the hot sun and high humidity of Dum Dum Airport was the nearest I had been to experiencing a Turkish bath. Then we were away and climbing high to clear Lashio’s surrounding mountains, only half the height of the 16,000 feet needed to clear the ‘hump’ into Yunnan, but uncomfortably unpressurised.

We were not expected, there was no accommodation; so we slept on the floor of the RAF Mess and lack of warning next day meant that we missed the one train to take us to Maymyo. This is not recorded as a complaint, but to illustrate that an attack on this country and the speed of its development meant that it was a considerable time before practical wartime organisation fell into place.

The next day we caught the train that carried us to Maymyo, a pleasant hill station to the north of Mandalay. The showpiece of this railway journey is the bridge over the Gokteik Gorge. No side members to the bridge were visible from the carriage windows and the drop below is said to be nine hundred feet. This was plainly an attractive sabotage target. Passes were needed for foreign travellers. The British could travel but thousands of Chinese soldiers were pulled off the trains until instructions explained that they were on our side. The billiard room of the Maymyo Club was our accommodation for the night. As there had been several bombing raids there was some discussion as to whether safety would be greater under the billiard table or well away from it.

For three days I waited in Maymyo where I found myself appointed as a Major to command Burma Corps Signals. It was hoped that the men I had brought from Egypt would arrive, but hope faded. However I will use this delay to explain some of the background. Today there will be few people who carry a clear picture of the times. There is also the fact that most writers have recorded what was going on in the south. The north has its story to tell too.

What was taking place in Burma was of interest to the Chinese, the Americans, the British, the Indians and, of course, to the Burmese themselves, quite a number of whom had a somewhat misplaced hope that a Japanese victory would give them the freedom to govern themselves. The Japanese had invaded China in 1937, so those two countries had been at war for several years. Gradually the Japanese gained control of the eastern seaboard of China. Chunking had become Nationalist’s new, if temporary, capital. The material help that China was receiving from the United States, and to a lesser extent from Britain, could only continue if a new supply route could be contrived. This led to the development of the Burma Road up from Rangoon through Lashio to the Chinese border of Yunnan and on to Kunming and Chunking.

Supplies of vehicles and equipment arrived at Rangoon by sea and had to be driven the thousand miles and more to Kunming, often in vehicles that had arrived crated and were assembled at the docks. India and Britain were already allies and Burma had come under British control in 1886 after the last of the Burma wars that tended to arise from attempts of the Burmese to capture Indian territory. The loss of the sea routes made it of high importance to improve land routes between China, Burma and India. Air transport was minimal at this early stage but was to play a major rôle in the later operations of the Burma war.

To give some picture of the early months in the north I turn to a record written by W G Burchett, a journalist at the time of Pearl Harbour and the invasion of Hong Kong. He was stationed in Chunking. The place was muddy, miserable, bomb-blasted and foggy. The news on the 7th December 1942 reported the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Early positive action came from the CNAC Manager whose pilots evacuated 275 people from Hong Kong in four days and nights before it was surrendered. CNAC passenger routes provided the only carrier service available. General Wavell travelled this way to Chunking. On his return his plane went off course, discovering its mistake when approaching Japanese-held Bangkok. By good luck they were not observed.

In late January the American Volunteer Group who had been serving the Chinese was transferred to Burma where its pilots did excellent work, though they had ceased to operate by the time that I arrived. Burchett transferred to Burma. He destroys any image one might have of the Burma Road as a great highway with regular convoys running through to China with military precision. He speaks of the scandal of the operation. Chinese trucks carry only a fraction of the urgently needed military supplies. Prohibited luxury goods are carried instead and sold at enormous profit. The road is not even running at half capacity. Valuable ten-wheeled trucks are pitched over the edge every day by sheer carelessness. Trucks are run without oil in the engines or air in the tyres and everything without overhaul. Truck drivers were the new aristocracy of China. Salaries are nothing as compared with ‘squeeze’ all along the line and illegal profits. Serious efforts are being made with some success to improve efficiency.

Burchett travels the length of Burma a number of times, a country of similar size to the United Kingdom. He declares that Lashio was the most interesting town in the Far East in the last months of the retreat through Burma. A thatched village a few years back has become a bustling centre of a thousand and one activities. All the important arrivals come through that way, courtesy of CNAC. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang, a great character in her own right, were to travel CNAC on visits to India. The Gissmo, his abbreviated title, was still pressing for improved routes to India, having in mind a trade route as well as something of use for military purposes. Brief examination of two options led to the winding-up of work on the Yunnan Burma Railway to the Indian railhead, and exploring a route through virtually unknown country via the Hukwang Valley and over the Naga Hills to join the Indian railway at Ledo.

At this point officialdom appears to have stepped back, and left the survey, such as it was, to the private initiative of Burchett, the journalist, two oilmen from different companies and Clive North of the Burma Frontier Service who happened to turn up at the time. He had the advantage that he could speak the Kachin dialect of the area. They had two jeeps, adequate petrol and food for ten days. They would see how far they could get along the Hukwang route. Ferried across the Irrawaddy they rode the Burma Railway to Mogaung, and there exploration started. The natives had reason to be grateful to the Government, as many of them had been the slaves of the headhunting Nagas until twenty or so years earlier. Before long they reached the ultimate point hitherto attained by any wheeled vehicle. The track narrowed to a path which humans and elephants used. At streams every few hundred yards rough bridging had to be improved or improvised. Kachins were rounded up and with their dahs, simple unpointed swords, they were able craftsmen. For them it was a picnic and they worked with enthusiasm. Enjoyment rather than thought of reward seemed to be the main spur. At the end of the day they reached a point which the headman had assessed as a four-day journey. They were entering an area where no wheeled vehicle of any kind, not even a wheelbarrow, had been seen before. They could only think of a jeep as some new form of animal as is shown by their remarks translated by North.

As the engine ticked over ‘It is tired, see how heavily it breathes’. Filling the radiator ‘See how thirsty it is. It drinks more than a buffalo’. Feeling exhaust gasses ‘It’s sick. Feel how hot its breath is’. The headman intervened. ‘It is a steamboat. My father has told me of such things.’ The headlights caused excitement. ‘Look how angry it is. Look how its eyes glare. They are fiercer than a tiger’s eyes.’ Thereafter there were always fifty workers or more helping the advance.

A hundred yards of swamp was made passable by tree trunks propped on Y-shaped logs driven into the mud. Two wide rivers had to be crossed, existing bamboo rafts being improved to take heavier loads and river banks graded to get the vehicles afloat and ashore. Some of the proud old Kachin men were remarkable craftsmen. All this prompted a remark from one of the team ‘I dunno about finding a road to India. It seems to me that we are building one.’ They had covered 160 miles of the difficult trail.

Another sixty miles including the Naga mountain range would take them to Ledo. The route was a possible one and with planning and coolie work could make a valuable escape route. 100,000 coolies from the abandoned Yunnan Burma Railway could make a start. The route developed served hundreds of thousands of troops of several nations, refugees and others. The casualty rate from disease and starvation was high but without it the situation would have been much worse.

Back in ‘civilised’ Burma there were major administrative failures which plagued travellers. Peacetime controls on the issue of petrol and rations could hold people up literally for hours. Arriving in Mandalay, say, the Station Staff Officer had to be found. If he was out no progress could be made. With a chit from him the correct service location had then to be found, which in the end might have moved because of bomb damage. Petrol, if found, was probably in cans, but funnels for easy pouring were either not available or absurdly small. Burchett mentions use being made of something suitable for filling paraffin lamps. Ration issues depended on numbers involved and availability of individual items. For things lacking, an appropriate ‘in lieu’ item had to be found. This decided, the appropriate scales had to be calculated this way and that by appropriate percentages and then fully recorded in turn for everyone in a long queue. Thankfully the military system once I had joined Burcorps was simple and efficient.

It is plain that Burma was in no way prepared for a war which came with speed, power and ferocity from a direction deemed to be unsuitable for military action.

The enemy had achieved unimaginable surprise.

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