Chapter 14: The Burma Retreat, 1942
On 18 April 1942 I was suddenly told at midday that I must leave at once for Burma Corps with some field cable. An old lorry was provided and with it came a Gurkha driver. We had no common language, but we made preparations Burma style. The Station Staff Officer (SSO) had to be found and a chit for petrol acquired. No maps were available and no clear idea given of where the Corps HQ was to be found. We should drive to Meiktila and find out. Three and a half hours after the start gun we got away from Maymyo and drove the winding road down to the hot plain and Mandalay, which was sadly war-torn by Japanese bombing and with many fires still burning. The SSO was found and searches for requirements from workshops, stores and issues were a failure. It was dusk by the time we got away and Burchett’s Kachin villagers might have said of our transport ‘there was no light in its eyes’. A Chinese military convoy started to overtake us. With their lights I could hold their speed and halted with them at their first two hourly halt. We were soon surrounded by Chinese curiosity and used the only language available to us. The Gurkha smiled, I smiled and they smiled. At the next halt they brought us sugar cane which we all chewed. Very welcome it was, as we had no provisions with us.
Our hosts halted at a destination short of Meiktila but the Captain in charge kindly provided a jeep with good lights that led us to the Army Barracks in Meiktila itself. The whole area was deserted, so we took over an empty barrack room, found water for a drink and went to sleep at two in the morning. The SSO, when we found him next morning, said that town accommodation was now avoided. With no fighter or anti aircraft opposition the Japanese flew formations of thirty or more bombers in clear daylight to the bigger townships in turn, dropping all their bombs simultaneously at a word from their commander. After a cup of coffee he told us where to look for the Corps HQ. We took the Kyaukpadaung road. Burmese names are hard to handle, but the common Kyauk comes out as Chowk. The HQ was found on a substantial grassy knoll crowned by thick woodland. It was a nice place for a picnic, though this was no picnic. The rustic holiday scene was enhanced by the wide variety of civilian cars parked casually around. These had been acquired as supplementary transport when the oil fields of Yenangyaung were being cleared before their destruction a few days before my arrival. They were a mixed blessing.
We were now in the dry zone of Burma and water shortage brought misery on many of the soldiers of the fighting units, even threatening their very survival. For our small Headquarters there was less of a problem. Chaungs, dry watercourses at this season, had invisible water flowing. With open-ended forty gallon petrol drums sunk in the alluvial bed soil, cleared of mud, water was then collected that could be baled into our own containers.
I was welcomed by the Chief Signal Officer Lieutenant Colonel McSwiney and his Staff Officer, Major Bill Chisnall and shown round. Bill, a Post Office engineer by profession, but as we were a Headquarters that produced little in the way of paper there was no staff work for him to do. Bill records the memory of his arrival. He found his CSO sitting under a tree when he had reported a week earlier. His greeting was “I can’t think why you have come. All you can do is walk back to India. It’s quite a long way.” Nevertheless Bill was a valuable help and companion for me.
Commanders at the level of Division and Brigade were not too far distant and General Slim constantly visited them. It was Signals’ job to handle written message traffic - radio voice communication not being possible. Bill brought me such information as I needed from HQ and spent most of his time usefully with my unit, such as it was. There was violent rain during my first night that had to be endured as we slept in the open. Morning sun soon dried things out.
For the first few days it seemed to be a case of jobs looking for me rather than me looking for jobs. The CSO’s oilfield Chevrolet was not working. Would I please have it fixed. At this stage of the war Royal Signals as a Corps had its own Vehicle Mechanics, but I had none so took on the repair task myself. One of the general problems was that we were supplied with the aviation spirit provided for our tanks that apparently was bad for a car’s valves. Luckily we had two of the Chevs in question and I made one good runner from the two, adjusting tappets, cleaning the air filter, having the battery charged and taking sound parts from the worst Chev to improve the other.
The next day I faced up to the problem that I had no clerk. The sergeant I had left in India would have been very useful. As a former Adjutant I was well aware of the need for records and reports. Choosing a vehicle I started preparing it to be our office van. It had been used for the slaughter and butchery of calves so a good deal of cleansing was required. This part done I was called upon to take some stores as a gift from General Slim to Lt General Sun, the Commander of the 38th Chinese Division. His Division had played a key part in the battle round Yenangyaung and mutual trust had brought great dividends when General Slim had placed both Burcorps artillery and the 7th Armoured Brigade under General Sun’s command for the operation.
As usual no map was provided. I should drive through Kyauk Padaung and on to Gwegio. Once at the crossroads I would see the Headquarters on my left. No-one said ‘You can’t miss it’, but I did and proceeded rather tentatively towards Yenangyaung until a 7th Hussar scout car appeared at speed towards me and the driver said it was unhealthy to go further. Between us we found the Chinese Headquarters. I was well received by General Sun and the telephones and cable I brought were welcomed. Chairs were brought and we sat in the shade and chatted. General Sun Li Jen was a product of the Virginia Military Academy in the USA and has been assessed in retrospect as being pre-eminent among the Chinese leaders. At one point in our talk, calling to a minion, he said to me “You will need a receipt.” When it arrived it was written in Chinese so he added ‘7 Tels …’ in his own handwriting. He was a man greatly to be admired.
On my return I gave lifts to several Chinese with happy smiles. It was their habit to wave you down with a stick bomb brandished in their hand. Some took this to be a threat but I feel sure that it was because they had no free hand to wave with. Calling at a fuel station in Kyaukpadaung I added the best part of a gallon of oil to the sump of my truck. The message was driven home even more forcibly that our transport was in dire need of regular attention. The next morning I discovered that two of my wartime soldiers were motor cycle enthusiasts. They were immediately put in charge of vehicle inspection and repair, a job that they did well.
The next morning I reverted to the office task and having started to run through a stack of accumulated paper when my office vehicle was commandeered and I had to work on the ground. Even this progress was stopped when I was sent off urgently to recce the site for a move of our HQ. At Wundwin we found the Chinese I had travelled down with already in situ and most other possible areas had disadvantages. The Staff Captain I was working with was the future General Walter Walker. Two more days were to pass before I was to find time to see my own unit at work. A decision had been taken to look further afield for a Headquarters site. It would pay to be closer to the great Ava Bridge over the Irrawaddy as the programme for crossing could be a tight one before its destruction.
We were sent off before the main body, which was set to move later in the day, and this time all went well. The vehicles of the main body were dispersed on arrival and as darkness came we dug in with some light from the neighbouring towns of Myingyan and Taungtha which were both well alight from bombing. In our small community headed by Brigadier Taffy Davis, the Chief of Staff, there was little formality. As well as the career soldiers there were numbers of able people from British firms or other Burma employment enhancing the quality of work. At this stage too we had several hill tribesmen, Chins and Karens, who were fine men who were to drop away before we left Burma.
Now I had a chance for the first time to meet up with the people under my command, to see what the organisation was and make a general assessment of priorities. I needed vehicle help for spare parts, so discovered the Ordnance Workshop, with success. I also visited the Field Ambulance and arranged for updating cholera injections. At this date the term Radio was not in use. We had a wide variety of wireless equipment, some of it from the Forestry Commission but our mainstay was provided by the Number Nine set, designed for use in armoured vehicles and produced in the late 1930s. It was heavy, robust and available in increasing numbers as light tanks of the Armoured Brigade were knocked out. I gradually built up a picture of our problems. When we and our formations were stationary, communications were good. However we did not have any facility for communication on the move and one HQ or another was on the move more often than not. The frequency stability of equipment of the day was not good. The result was that our operators spent their time sending calls, listening and searching the waveband with wonderful patience and perseverance until a working link was established.
The standard of skill of our experienced regular operators at this time was very high and our artist in this skill was Corporal Green, probably with a dozen years of service. If there were difficulties he would take on the task of establishing a link which, when working, could then be handed over to a less experienced hand. Gradually I established in my mind that Green was the most important man we had. The rest of us were there in his support. We had to keep the transport going so that we could travel; to keep ancient charging equipment working; to have available the acid and distilled water required for the batteries. Everyone made what contribution they could. Some civilian skills were useful. Our butcher’s boy would borrow my pistol when meat arrived on the hoof and carry out his trade. We had no cook but some had better camping skills in this trade than others and so on.
The high level administrative arrangements deserve applause. After the initial attack by the Japanese in southern Burma, very little time can have been available to get supply centres set up over the country. Yet we were never kept short of rations, in fact towards the end we were encouraged to take as much as we could find good use for. We learned by their absence how important the staple foods of one’s diet are. Bread, potatoes, eggs and green vegetables were not to be had. Butter was liquid as was the fat in tins of bacon. People would often speak of the simple meals they would enjoy when they reached civilisation. Though we were not a rice-eating nation we began to appreciate its value.
Whilst we were waiting it was possible to review unit organisation and responsibilities and issue clarification where needed. Late in the day orders were received for our next move and instructions issued on groupings and timings.
What I did not know until reading Ronald Lewin’s book Slim the Standardbearer years later was that a key meeting had taken place on this day, 25 April 1942, between Generals Alexander and Slim and the American General Stilwell. They were the commanders who could see the realities of the moment on the ground and judge that actions proposed from above had no hope of success. The Japanese in the east were rapidly approaching Lashio. Chinese troops must withdraw through Lashio to Yunnan before the gateway there was closed to them. For British/Indian troops escape was possible through Kalewa and Assam if they could cross the Irrawaddy by the Ava Bridge, leaving, when blown, a formidable river obstacle to the Japanese.
Up at five we got the main party away. As it was some time before my group was due off I set out to find the headquarters of 1 Burma Division which was reputed to be in the area. I learned a lesson. Driving up a track on my search a few rifle shots came my way. I was not slow to turn and be off. Such shots from Burma patriots were a danger to small parties and we learned to be more careful. As General Slim said in his book Defeat Into Victory ‘The country was by no means safe for solitary vehicles, despatch riders and linemen’. To explore on one’s own was asking for trouble. My purpose in seeking Burma Divisional Signals was a simple one. Mutual trust between Signals units can be enhanced by personal contact. There is less tendency when communications fail to blame ‘the other end’.
When we set out the RAF tender that we had for ground to air communication soon gave out and had to be towed. We had no RAF operators but supposedly we knew how to man and operate it. However as there were no friendly aircraft around during my time there it had little value. Rain and mud roads made progress slow. At a water-filled chaung two Service Corps lorries were stuck. I drove my car through and one of my trucks failed. We were still in an age when relatively few people had driving experience. In 1938 Drivers H/T, standing for horsed transport, were being retrained as Drivers Mechanical Transport and it was assumed that if the H/T could look after a horse, then the M/T variety could look after a truck. Those who drove our vehicles were not military drivers but those who happened to have some private driving experience. Few had off-road experience and they had to learn as they went along. My motor cycle trials experience in Catterick stood me in good stead. We had a small number of Chevrolet 30cwt trucks, four-wheel drive and a winch at the front. These were lease lend vehicles, released from crates and constructed on the docks of Rangoon, being too late for driving to China. Taking one of these through, in thunder and rain, I winched out those that were stuck and thereby created a track which most of the others followed without help. My party was rewarded with the gift of a 40-gallon drum of petrol. Spare fuel had high value. Having cleared the fine Ava Bridge and nearing our destination we pulled in to the side of the road and slept uncomfortably in our vehicles. It was 3am. At six we completed the journey.
We were to have two days of relative peace whilst the main effort of our HQ was overseeing the movements of the various formations and units over the Ava Bridge. Our priority was servicing the small charging engines that were becoming unreliable. Once again this was amateur work as the appropriate technical trades were not with us. This was DIY warfare long before those initials had any meaning. We went through all the stores we were carrying, finding vehicle parts we did not know of, hidden wireless stores and much of no value to us. Eventually we had listed stores in numbered cases and a pile we back loaded in case it was of use to someone else.
The next morning rumours of a move enabled me to get the main party packed ready and away, but work on some of the transport was only half done. We disabled a couple of cars and transferred a good radiator from a dud to a runner before getting going on our journey. As dusk approached I had a puncture and whilst the three vehicles were parked we heard what sounded like a two stroke engine which we ignored until tracer fire showed that it was a small Japanese aircraft. After its second run at us we climbed from a thorny ditch only to receive a burst from the tail of the enemy which we considered most unfair. No hits were recorded. It did not occur to us that there might be Japanese in the neighbourhood. At Monywa mortar fire could be heard, though in an indiscriminate manner. We traced it to a railway wagon, loaded with ammunition, which was on fire and moved on to Alon where flames showed that it had recently been under attack. This was where we expected to find our HQ. Leaving two trucks there I made a twenty-mile sweep to no avail. We slept hungry by the side of the road. This area I connect in particular with the sickly smell of the rotting flesh of mules and refugees.
April 30th was the most testing day of all for my small unit. We found the HQ in an area with Buddhist connections, providing thatched roofing for the few. Everything was normal until evening when General Slim was taking his meagre dinner. Some white-faced officers appeared and when questioned one said “The Japs have taken Monywa and if you listen you will hear them mortaring.” The Japanese had advanced rapidly on the western side of the river and were now closer to Corps Headquarters than we were to any of our formations. Emergency Operations messages carrying information and orders had to reach subordinate commanders most urgently and this could only be achieved by our morse operators. As already stated, this could only meet with success at times when these headquarters themselves were not on the move. I remember an anxious night moving round from one detachment to another, giving moral support if nothing else and occasionally getting encouraging news, and eventually falling asleep where I sat some time after four in the morning.
This was the end of a phase. The main concern of General Slim now was to extract his Corps to the safety of Assam where fresh units would be able to take over the defence line of the Shenam Heights.
There is a tale told by Bill Chisnall that I find hard to place in time. He was accompanying his Chief Signal Officer who had been called for by General Slim. They were sitting in a tent having a discussion when a motor cycle stopped outside and a young subaltern burst in, with the cry “We are surrounded. I have just been shot at. No point in hanging around here.” The great Bill Slim turned to his Chief of Staff “This is serious Taffy - better get some tea.”
Attention now turned to getting our formations back to Assam mainly through jungle country noted for its virulent variety of malaria. The monsoon rains would become due in a few weeks and their early arrival might enormously increase our problems. The Japanese might be a threat up the Myittha Valley to the west, parallel to the Chindwin, but whatever they sent there would be getting further and further from their main thrusts. At 6 o’clock we stood to, the military term for readiness against attack. Breakfasted, we loaded our vehicles and waited impatiently for the start. Some forty silver planes flew by and delivered their bombs on Shwebo; most fortunate that the Japanese had not changed their strategic targets to the likes of our vehicles and us. Setting off we had forty miles of reasonable road and then the track started. For a while it led over paddy fields, but these gave way to jungle as we went on. At dusk we chose a camping site. We were told that in a further twelve miles we would have to leave our vehicles. We would await the moment. Without vehicles no communications could be provided. However we did take the hint and prepared to be able to dispose of those trucks least important to us, with similarly classified equipment. Much of our personal equipment had low priority too.
In the morning we were up early and on our way but soon experienced a major blockage which held us up for hours. The cause of our delay was a steep hillside where construction work was still going on. Hairpin corners would have been the longer-term solution, but shortage of time ruled this option out. A zigzag was provided, forward down the first leg, backward down the second and so on. A very slow process. We suffered much from dust. Every vehicle throws up its quota and we drive without windscreens.
At dusk a 7th Hussar officer joined us. He provided gin and we fed him. There were thousands of fireflies and a full moon set off this great occasion! The next morning brought us down into the Schwegin bowl by the River Chindwin. There was a substantial steamer loading and when called forward I drive through sticky sand up weak planks and on board. It seemed to me that a minor modification of the ship would allow one more vehicle aboard on each six-mile trip up river. This was approved so that we are able to take two of our Chev trucks, loaded with Signals equipment up to Kalewa. I marched our men the mile or two to our camp site where we joined our vehicles. It was the usual grassy open space without any facilities.
The morning swim in the river was the first good wash for some time and it helped with laundry too. Certain Burma Corps links kept our operators busy and we could also help the local Signals element. Some cable was laid at Kalemyo on the River Myittha, twenty miles to the west by our usual ad hoc team. Cable usually comes on drums and reels off easily. Ours came in sacks. Finding the frame of an old wooden charpoy (a light bedstead), the cable was disentangled and rewound on that.
Going north to visit General Alexander’s Army Headquarters I picked up three Warrant Officers of the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, each carrying a tidy looking canvas sack and took them twenty miles on their way. Thanking me they said that the Queen would be most grateful. I had been carrying the Regimental colours and she was their Colonel in Chief. On the way back it was good to see a friendly aircraft harassing a Japanese opponent.
Transport was giving trouble as it often did in that age. Inept driving had pulled rivets from a spring mounting. Bolts were found and a repair made. Petrol starvation on a second truck was more of a puzzle. It was eventually found that a blade of straw had lodged itself in a bend of the feed pipe. Suction from the engine would close the flow like a valve and the engine would die. We moved in stops and starts until the fault was cured.
For the journey north we are provided with transport for most of our men, whilst our own two vehicles take our equipment. After hours of rain the track is rough and muddy. A lorry ahead of us overshoots a bridge and overturns. We tackle recovery operations like ants. It is surprising how effective collective muscle power can be. We have moved into an area of fine teak trees and after eleven hours we make damp camp without cover at Tamu.
More fortunate than many that follow us we are not called upon to march until the very last leg of our journey. We march at night and the way is rough and climbing. We are into the Naga Hills. After four hours we rest by the roadside, restarting at first light for two more hours, bringing us to a point where a bridge is being built and blasting is in progress. A vehicle road has been developed from the Imphal Plain, driven over a 5000ft pass through 8000ft mountains. We climb aboard transport and are driven over the pass and down to Palel where we meet 23 Indian Division who will be holding this front with others for more than two years. Larger vehicles carry us to Kangpopki at 5000ft where HQ and officers take over the American Baptist Mission house. We have a fire and a harmonium but no furniture. At least there is cover over our heads at a time of much rain.
At this point a bout of dengue, called breakbone fever, strikes me. It appears that night-time mosquitoes deliver malaria whereas the daytime ones provide dengue. If so I am fortunate as my complaint is like influenza whereas malaria is serious. Fresh rations start to appear and are a great boon. Paperwork, which we have done without, starts to be important again. Nominal rolls are required for those who will be travelling by train from Manipur Road. Pay books have to be reviewed and balances drawn before pay arrangements can be made. We discover confusion about the time of day. Some people are using Burma time, others Assam time and the remainder Indian time. This has to be sorted out. Astonishingly, in view of my wanderings by sea and land, a letter arrives for me from my brother Malcolm in Egypt.
After a week we move on again, but soon there is a long halt. There are several one-way sections in the road and priority has been given to General Wavell, going forward to greet the exhausted units arriving from treks that for some had stretched the full length of Burma. The whole road we travel is insecure. Looking downhill earlier roads that have slipped away can be seen and much engineering is going on to ensure that at least some flow of traffic continues in each direction. The mountain scenery is beautiful as one rises to 7000ft before arriving at Kohima where a few sturdy Nagas are seen much decorated with beads. There are many beautiful birds to be seen and strings of butterflies following their leader enhance the fairy tale atmosphere. Descending to Dimapur and the railway at 400-feet the sun is shining and it is hot again.
The ensuing rail journey to Ranchi via Calcutta takes four days. For the narrow gauge section the accommodation is a hard-seated carriage. At least there is no more hanging about. Lorries eventually bring us the forty miles to Ranchi and on through dull and desiccated country to a large school where the new 4 Corps HQ is located. One of its Signals officers, John Morris MP, has cabled Churchill to get beer money for the returning warriors. Indian ranks had been sent elsewhere, so it was only our sixty or seventy British soldiers who remained together. We were well pleased with our achievement and looked forward to joining a substantial unit before returning to do battle with the Japanese.
General Slim addressed us generously. Above all we wished to serve him again. He had only been a Lieutenant General for a few months but where else would we find such a great and imaginative human being. At my lowly level it seemed to me that if a leader remains calm and purposeful the group around him quickly forms a cohesive team where every man seeks and finds contributory tasks to help all others. Cheerful acceptance of the hardships and disappointments along the line can be a great help.
There were hard times to come in Ranchi. Before long more than half the unit was in hospital with malaria. One morning I attended six funerals though thankfully only one was ours. I will not dwell on this sorry period with its concern for the sick, cleaning our equipment and us. After a fortnight I received direct orders from the Signal Officer-in-Chief to go on leave at once and report to 15 Corps Signals near Calcutta as soon as possible.
The rare opportunities for leave in war deserve good planning for which there was little time on this occasion. However with relations everywhere, as one of my contemporaries pointed out, I knew where to start. Eric Horsfield, a cousin and brother of the Phyllis I had left in Cairo, was Commandant of the Bombay Sappers and Miners in Kirkee near Poona. Enquiries fixed a date and I set out with a friend from the Silverteak for Bombay. At that time I described it as a fine city with good buildings, broad roads and open spaces. With its ten million population of more recent times it is less impressive. It soon became clear to me that big cities and bright lights were no place for me on rare escapes from duty. I spent some time in Schneider’s Viennese Studio having a portrait sketched for my parents. The artist was a Jew of talent who decided that India was a safer place for him to work than Hitler’s Austria.
In Kirkee my busy relations looked after us well and I found a number of friends. Eventually we had a lengthy journey to Calcutta. There was a major diversion because a bridge was down and the train had to be re-routed. I rang my new Commanding Officer, Colonel Cubby Watts, to report my arrival. He said that he thought that I had been posted to Mhow, near Bombay! Visiting the unit in Barrackpore this turned out to be true. I was to go to Mhow to join the British Signal Training Centre there and command the Officer Cadet Wing.
My next train journey was equally fraught. Arriving at Khandwa I spent a night in the waiting room only to be told at breakfast that the line to my destination had been washed away. Setting off immediately and with three more changes, the last at 3.30 the next morning, I eventually reached Mhow in the rain at 6.30 am. In six months since leaving Egypt I had been on a long sea voyage, served in Burma and Assam, finishing up with 4000 miles of travel by Indian Railways. It was time to settle down.