Chapter 18: Assam, 1944
There was a variation in transport after Calcutta when we spent a long day being carried by river steamer to Chandpur in present-day Bangladesh which was close to Comilla on the border of Assam, the location of HQ XIV Army. There I was looked after by two Brigadiers, the Chief Engineer, Eric Horsfield - the brother of Guy - and Bill Bowen, the Chief Signal Officer, well known to me from serving under him in Burma. It was the latter who told me that I was to join 23 Indian Divisional Signals in the Imphal Plain.
The task that Eric took on with his Engineers in 1942 was an immense one. Airfields were needed urgently. Fair weather versions were made in paddy or jungle areas with waterproofed surfaces, some accommodation and fuel supply. Roads had to be developed both for general use and to transport building materials needed for all the projects. Stone was in short supply. A million tons had to be moved from the Khasi Hills to the coastal areas by Inland River transport. A fleet of Engineer boats was assembled and a boat building Company formed to build boats on riverbanks from jungle trees. Much of the work in the early days was carried out without mechanical equipment. The 120-mile coastal road from Chittagong to the south was under water for four months of each year from monsoon rains. An earth bund six feet high and thirty feet wide for the length of the road was created in six months by manual labour. The port of Chittagong was enlarged. No standard bridging was available from Europe so each bridge had its own design and construction. Crossings of numerous tidal creeks called in total for five miles of bridging.
Another high priority was the development of permanent all-weather airfields for bombers and transport planes. The Americans were flying in supplies from India to China over the hump, the high range of mountains separating the two countries. The British and Indian Engineers carried out all this vast programme of work for the United States Airforce. Add to this the need for hospitals, water and petrol supply, storage and creating and improving mountain roads to withstand heavy vehicles in all weathers. Their task was immense.
I left Comilla by modern transport, flying to Imphal, and arrived in heavy rain in mid-morning. We were sixty air miles south of Kohima where the pivotal battle of the Burma war had recently been fought, the connecting road to Imphal only having been cleared a month before my arrival. Palel, my destination, was 30 miles further to the south where, two years earlier, the newly-arrived 23rd Division greeted us as we completed our retreat from Burma. I was greeted by my new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Reg Atkinson, familiar to me from service in the same unit when I was first commissioned. Reg was a robust and practical soldier with a cheerful ‘get on with the job’ approach and was well liked.
His was an unusual story. When we last met he had been a Corporal Draughtsman working in our unit Headquarters in Catterick. I believe that he had taken on this trade for a change after long service as a first class operator. He did not have any pre-war regular officers serving with him but had created an excellent team which was doing a first class job. The Corps should be proud of him. The solution of the command appointment illustrates once again the officer shortage problem in Signals. It also highlights the excellent quality of many of the experienced pre-war NCOs in the Corps. Reg’s predecessor had proved unsatisfactory and Reg, his second in command, had inherited the job. I would enjoy working for him and with him.
Now that the Japanese were in retreat it was important to increase the momentum and deny them the time to build up their defences. They were a capable and determined foe but the initiative was ours. Palel is only 25 miles from the Chindwin River but a jungle-covered mountain ridge 4000 feet higher than the Imphal Plain favoured the defender. The rudimentary road over the one Pass did not offer easy passage during the monsoon season, which was upon us. The three Divisions of our Corps had the operational task of driving the Japanese back over the craggy mountains and across the Chindwin River. 23 Division was in the centre and our 37 Brigade would follow the line of the road, the other two Brigades hooking to the right and left. The operation had started so I missed the preparation period that would have been instructive, though such an experienced body of men would know what was required of them.
The Japanese were expert in selecting defensive positions where our artillery and armour could not bring weapons to bear and excavating deep and well-concealed bunkers which were formidable positions for our Infantry to clear.
Divisional HQ in Palel was at the foot of the mountain housed in bashas, simple huts roofed with atap leaves. We had a Lister diesel engine there chugging away night and day. Heavy lead acid batteries were required for every wireless set and it was unsafe to use charging sets at Brigade as enemy patrols could home in on the noise. A cautious ‘milk round’ would exchange charged batteries for used ones on a regular basis. The distance separating forward troops was not great. The Japanese patrols at night did not limit their attentions to forward troops and Brigade Headquarters. A Bangalore torpedo, a pipe filled with explosive, was placed by one of our buildings in Palel. It failed to go off.
Having felt something of a spectator for a couple of days I was sent off to ‘Cock Box’ to our Lorried Infantry Brigade where some technical help was required. It was not far but the road was described as ‘pretty indifferent’. The first diversion came where Sappers were improving a bridge. The track got worse and worse with anxious moments on the hillside when opposing jeeps had to pass. In spite of four-wheel drive, low reduction gear and chains on four wheels a final hill defeated us and I splashed through deep mud on foot for half an hour to reach my destination. The technician did his job whilst I talked to Brigadier Dyer and his Brigade Major, JHL Buss, a wartime soldier. The reason the initials are remembered was that we were schoolmates at Oundle. Not only were we contemporaries but each of us had become head of house and school prefect at the same time and within this small group of a dozen the formal seating plan had us sitting side by side in Great Hall and Chapel. Leaving late, no lights were allowed and before long the outer wheels slipped downhill off the edge of the track. We spent a cold and miserable night.
In the morning we prepared for help by making tow ropes from Signals cable and were helped out by Sappers, having a further wait while a road slide was repaired. The distance was not far but the journey took five hours. Headquarters had moved up to the saddle of the pass at Shenam where tented camp and food were available.
At the Pass the track crossed from the side of one hill to another and for a moment crossing traffic could be seen by the Japanese in the valley below. A screen was rigged to give concealment. On one occasion I was with the chief gunner when we came under artillery fire. Dropping instantly to the ground we heard a voice say “Anyone get a bearing?” I suppose a muzzle flash might have been seen if we had been looking the right way. Even so it was a lesson to keep people thinking of retaliation rather than self-preservation. At this stage gunners were using anti-aircraft guns in a ground role which gave them considerable improvement in range.
Camping holidays may be spoiled by rain, but this was no holiday and going home was not an option. The next few days were busy as I began to be recognised as a team member. There was an exchange to be closed and a cable to lay from 37 Brigade to the top of a landslide for traffic control, disused cable to be rescued if there was a shortage. This was often spoken of as a 1914-18 problem but it happened with us too and all the time there was mist and rain. Dress was individual. Gurkha hats were good. I wore a gas cape with scarf tightly round the neck to hinder dribbles. Over this came a waterproof cape from which water trickled into Wellingtons. There were no drying facilities and one was permanently wet. The road was ankle deep in mud and a passing vehicle would be followed by its own stern wave of mud. Thousands of others suffered worse conditions over longer periods than I did, but this is a general characteristic of the climate that we do not forget.
The operation was going well when, out of the blue, information came that the Division would shortly be withdrawn from operations for what has come to be called rest and recuperation after its two years of active engagement. We would move to the hill station of Shillong and someone from our unit should go ahead to prepare for the arrival of our warriors. I was the obvious choice with the result that my period of active service with a commanding officer I valued was less than two weeks. With the Regimental Sergeant Major and four vehicles including a radio truck and a couple of 3 tonners we set out three days later.
Shillong lies some 150 air miles to the west of Palel, but travel is not that simple in Assam. We first went 150 miles due north to Galaghat and the Irrawaddy valley, passing through the war-torn area round Kohima with bare and anguished remnants of distorted trees and absence of natural life. There were thoughts too of the superb gallantry shown and those who died in the contest, the story brilliantly told in John Colvin’s Not Ordinary Men. To my mind this battle ranks with Waterloo and General Slim with Wellington.
Two more laps took us 80 miles west to Nowgong and finally 90 miles south west to Shillong, a total of 320 miles if the roads had been straight, which they were not. With 4am starts and a night on the way we arrived for lunch on the second day. Shillong’s altitude is 5000 feet, which gives it a fine climate and splendid views, for which assets it has been referred to as the Scotland of the East! The Khasia tribe and two other tribes, the Jantias and the Garos, live in the same small state. The Khasis are fine-featured people, where tribes further east are more robust.
Shillong itself is very hilly and our military occupation extended into the surrounding country. First we learned the geography. General Festing’s 36th Division was moving out and we quickly made our accommodation bids with some swapping between ‘Camp’, the Divisional HQ representative and myself. There was plenty to do in the week available if everyone arriving was to feel that a real effort had been made to provide for their comfort and needs. Amenities were needed for both British and Indian Other Ranks. The latter came from Southern India and were referred to as Madrassis. The name stems from the East India Company days when the three Armies were titled Madras, Bengal and Bombay. They spoke many languages or dialects from the south so all were trained in English. In a way I would have liked to served with northern Indians where I could make use of the Urdu I had learned and to improve its scope, but the men I was with were cheerful and intelligent and were capable tradesmen.
Messes had to be made attractive with provisions and drinks available. [The spirits acquired from the Assam Distilleries are not recommended]. A newsroom should be ready for the men with good maps and up to date information. Replacement clothing must be available and pay arrangements made. Vehicles would need repair. Offices were needed and some accommodation required altering. Thought had to be given to Signal Centre and Despatch rider services and so it went on. Games facilities were discovered and a PT adviser told us what he had to offer to help those under training and waiting for leave. It was discovered that surface coal could be picked up in a nearby area and fires in the Messes were much appreciated.
Within ten days the Commanding Officer appeared and we had a fortnight together in which training and other requirements were discussed before he went on well-earned leave for a month. The men too departed in groups whilst for those remaining physical fitness was redeveloped and games were played. On my side there was a good deal of administrative checking to do. The only area at fault concerned various accounts, which is not surprising. Regular officers are trained and practised in auditing but it remains a mystery to others. I ran a short course on keeping accounts and the methods and checking required.
Meanwhile there was a social side to our activities. We knew of WAC(I)s in India but WAS(B)s were new to us. The pronunciation is Wakeye and Wasbee. The former, Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India), performed military duties. The latter, Women’s Auxiliary Services (Burma), supported a number of the service organisations. All helped enhance the holiday atmosphere of our leave. It would have been nice to stay longer. In several of the places people had wirelesses or gramophones that were faulty and we were able to put them in order, which raised our status as useful people.
Not far from Shillong is Cherrapunji, reputedly the wettest place on earth. The annual rainfall is measured in feet rather than inches, the average being 40 feet and the record being nearly twice as much. On a fine afternoon it was a nice place to picnic and it was one of the best places to collect surface coal for our fires. I made a trip of 40 miles to Sylhet to make contact with the United States Air Force and found them in steaming heat at a mere 250 feet above sea level. Whilst there I bought a truck full of quacking ducks for the Officers’ Mess. On the way back there was no steep climb until we passed through a deep gorge. One could see clouds forming as the hot damp air moved upwards into cooler areas and as often as not these clouds would deposit rain on Cherrapunji above. This was the rain machine at work. The ducks liked water too. We dug a pond near the Mess and lined it with canvas. We then fed the ducks on Soya Links, unpopular sausage-shaped soya bean products that they adored. In due course we fed on very fine duck.
As the monsoon moved away our weather became much more pleasing and we could enjoy the country more. One morning I took a group on a route march down past 350-foot waterfalls, along riverbeds, up and down steep banks, largely in single file. We arrived back right on time for lunch. My audience was astonished that all this could be achieved in strange country merely with map in hand. It might well have been otherwise. Mick Garforth Bles and I occasionally rode horses of a Mountain Battery.
A debt I owe to Shillong relates to golf. Four of us played a game on the very hilly course. I decided that the small stationary ball had me beat. I have never played since and much time has been saved for other activities.
My editorial task for the Ski Club of India was not forgotten. Articles, maps and photographs came together and were sent off to Calcutta. One of them spoke of skiing in Sikkim a few hundred miles north of Shillong in the Himalayan foothills. If I was to get leave this might be a good place to go. So it came about that Reg Atkinson returned from leave and in mid-October 1944 I flew USAAF from Sylhet to Calcutta. Three of us started to plan a ten-day Sikkim trip, but I was called to Delhi. In Quetta I had expressed interest in an Airborne job and I was required for interview. I met General Eric Down, the Commander of the Airborne Division, and Colonel Douglas Pringle, who ran the Signals unit. When all was arranged I called in on my Mhow friend, Lionel Stones, now a staff officer. He handed me a telegram. ‘Posted to Staff College Quetta as an Instructor. Report 20th or as soon as possible.’ I was getting too popular! As it was already the 19th there was a lot to do in a hurry and no leave. Assembling kit from store in India and arranging its transmission to Quetta took time and I handed the Ski manuscript to Hruska, a Czech, for publication before catching a flight to Quetta.
I will never know, but suspect that I was earmarked for Quetta when I left there and that there were people along the line who knew that my stay in Assam would be a short one. It was certainly an honour to be wanted, as an instructor though the task it brought was a testing one.