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History of the Burma Star Association

The Irrawaddy Crossing
Excerpt from Pick Up your Parrots and Monkeys

 The moon shone on the swirling waters of the Irrawaddy, illuminating the small boats of the passing Burmese which drifted along silently. The night was warm and peaceful with a cooling breeze which carried their songs of love across the waters to the waiting troops, and they knew little of the impending battle. But their serenity was soon to be transformed, for they were to be caught up in the maelstrom of machine gun fire which would change that tranquillity into a nightmare of horror. Their world was soon to be turned upside down, and life would never be the same for them. And as the British soldiers waited on that northern bank, their thoughts were of far away England and home, and their families and friends. And wondering how many more rivers must they cross - for there was always one more. When, if ever, would it be the Mersey…?  Tomorrow would be February 23, 1945, and at first light they would cross the dangerous river to attack the Japanese.  They knew it would be a day to remember.  A day to be filled with violence and fear amid the all too familiar sounds of the war against the vicious and ruthless Japanese.  Many knew it might be the last time they would see the sun rise on this foreign and godforsaken land as they started their journey to join the immortal legions of British soldiers who had gone before.

It was now after dark that evening and in the role of Forward Observation Officer providing artillery support to the Worcester Regiment of the 2nd British Division, Penny and his two signallers were making last minute preparations. There was great optimism about the crossing, and expectations that it would be a relatively bloodless one were being freely voiced. But they were wrong. They would be under surveillance by the Japanese the whole of the way across the water, without protection, and it would be a bloody journey as the full moon now shone brightly illuminating the scene.  The famous Cameron Highlanders who were to land on the adjacent beach were to fare no better.

Penny was dressed as were most of the men in jungle green battledress, with their shirt sleeves rolled up in spite of the mosquitoes.  He had worn his uniform for six months and the jungle had taken its toll on what was now a very bedraggled looking outfit.  Faded, it was but a poor memory of its original dark green when he had first worn it.  Patched here and there, it was threadbare at the knees and torn at the back where the bamboo had caught it.  It had not been washed in weeks and did not appear to be long for this life.  It was like Penny himself in both respects!  But looking around he saw they were all the same. and it didn’t bother anyone.  Nothing lasts long in the jungle.  A few even wore shorts, which was contrary to regulations because of malaria, but nothing was said; there were other things on their minds besides the dress and how they wore it.  His accoutrements were few, for he would need to travel light on this occasion.  Being highly mobile during the next few hours was of the utmost importance.  Still, with the rifle, which now seemed to be glued to his hands, binoculars, pistol and water bottle at his waist, he carried enough. His soft felt Australian type bush hat was the crowning glory of a man about to enter the fray. Looking across at the infantry who were now huddled in small groups, he could see them caressing their rifles and testing the blades of the bayonets. They would bear the brunt of the fight when it came and were performing the age-old ritual of men preparing for battle, as soldiers have always done over the centuries, by inspecting their weapons.  There were Bren guns to strip and clean and grenades to load in the pouches at their side.  Knives to be sharpened and weapons loaded.  No flags would  be carried, for now every man was the flag of the Regiment.  And the guns, Penny’s guns, were half a mile away, soon now anticipating his cry for fire.  For security reasons there was a wireless silence and they seemed isolated.  But they too were ready and waiting.  There were no “last letters” to loved ones being exchanged in the event that the men did not come through the battle safely.  This had all been done a long time ago.

It seemed unusually quiet now. Even the chattering of the monkeys was subdued and there were few animal cries to penetrate the deathly quietness.  Penny felt uneasy and wondered …    It was to be a silent approach, hoping for the element of surprise, and they were now ready to cross the river.   It was a long wait to the small hours of the morning, but at 0200 hours the landing craft slipped the shore beneath a partial moon low on the horizon, which failed to diminish the brightness of the Southern Cross.

The Irrawaddy was some two miles wide there, with large sandbanks and shifting shoals, and flowing at the rate of five or six knots.  The Japanese were known to be on the far shore and they would now be alerted by the sound of the boat engines.  One could only hope for the best, and that the Japanese would not have time to strengthen their position before the Worcester Regiment was upon them.  The crossing was expected to take some twenty minutes, with the landing on the far beaches to coincide with the first light of day.  During the night however, and unknown to the Worcesters’ , the water levels had fallen dramatically, and what was to have been a relatively easy crossing proved to  be an extremely hazardous one, bordering on disaster.  As the darkness slowly faded, dissolving the stars which hung like huge lanterns in the clear sky, there were now many more sandbanks visible upon which several of the boats were aground and which would obviously be delayed, or even prevented from reaching the far shore.  Floating on the surface of the water around them were the bloated bodies of the Japanese who had died for their Emperor a few days ago several miles upstream, in the fight with the 19th Indian Division.  And the smell was vile and overpowering.

A large number of the boats were made of bamboo and were being towed by power driven craft, but unfortunately the tow ropes of some broke and they were drifting helplessly, and were at the mercy of the machine guns.  Many of these wandering homemade bamboo boats were waterlogged and collapsing under the heavy weight they carried, and as they sank in the turgid water, the men could be seen floundering as they discarded their weapons and their equipment. The water was too deep in which to stand and the current too strong for a man to swim. Those unable to do so were the first to drown, and the others quickly fell to the seeking and vicious Japanese guns. Penny was also under fire as were other boats, all of which were already filled to overflowing. Rifle fire directed at the Japanese was ineffective, and all you could do was to watch in horror and swear - and pray. Penny’s mind was in a state of chaos, but like the others he was bound to ignore the surrounding trauma and concentrate on reaching the far bank. With the confusion of orders being shouted, only to be countermanded, the men must have been filled with despair as they struggled in the moonlit waters, knowing that failure was at hand. Not all the boats being used were of bamboo, a few were factory made. However, these had been used the previous day for the 20th Division crossing downstream at Myinmu, and many of them were badly damaged. They had also been used extensively before that in Europe and were in poor shape when the 20th got them. They were very much hand-me-downs to the 20th Division who felt like poor relations, and they had a tough job to do. Even now they were under heavy machine gun fire and, in their exposed position in the middle of the river, many of the Worcester infantrymen aboard them would die as they were shot like sitting ducks. However, being in the leading wave, Penny, with the forward elements who were about to land, could do nothing for those who were so helplessly stranded. There had been no surprise and all the subterfuge had been wasted. Silhouetted under a clear full moon they could again only put their trust in God, knowing that the Japanese were waiting for them. And they were, and in full force. There were shouts and cries for help from the injured huddled in the boats, which presented a target the Japanese machine gunners could hardly miss.

Now it was Penny’s turn, and as the shore was reached, at the cry of the order “Kedge down” (to lower the ramp) and the kedge of his boat struck, it too received the attention of the machine guns, with bullets ripping through both men and boat. It was rapidly taking water as they reached for their weapons and prepared to land and rush the enemy. The Japanese were not yet finished with Penny’s boat, for as it reached the beach a phosphorus grenade was hurled into it, and as they scrambled ashore from the crowded and quickly sinking boat, they feared the day was lost. Now in the water, they must cross the twenty yards of sandy beach which rose steeply for thirty feet, before being topped with thick elephant grass. Razor sharp and taller than those who got ashore, the grass was an obstacle which caused more men to die from the same withering fire. But, it also offered sanctuary, for once you gained its cover, you were hidden from the eyes of the probing machine gunners. All around, other boats were landing, with the occupants racing up the beach seeking the haven the grass presented.

The sands of the beachhead were soft and difficult to traverse, and, being totally exposed to the enemy fire, it soon became a stretch of hell littered with the dead and dying. Penny and his signallers were too busy with their own problems to consider the situation. In the mad rush to escape the burning boat, still under the hail of fire, they had leapt into the slimy water as quickly as possible to escape the hail of death. In doing so, part of the equipment they had left in the boat included the wireless set which was so vital to the role Penny was now about to play. Without it there was no contact with the guns, and without the guns the battle could be lost, Racing back without hesitation, but with hearts in their mouths, Penny and his signaller dodged the raking fire from the machine guns which continued to saturate the beach. Rushing madly into the water, which was alive with the bursts of the bullets, they scrambled into the now drifting and sinking boat which would soon be caught in the mainstream of the current. Though riddled with holes it stayed afloat long enough for them to rescue the wireless. Leaping again into the chest deep water with the vital equipment, and floundering along the sandy beach again riddled with the hail of lead, they dashed madly back to the comparative safety of the elephant grass. Quickly they established contact with the guns on the northern bank of the river, issuing the gunners’ cry:’Troop target, HE 106, Right ranging….’

The target was to be enemy machine guns situated on the promontory a few hundred yards to the flank, which dominated the landing of the assault craft and was responsible for the near failure of the landing. It could be seen only from the exposed beach, so it was ‘once more into the breach’ as Penny stood there unprotected, directing the fire.  Three ranging rounds from a 25 pounder were all that were necessary before ordering gunfire from the four guns of the Troop, to silence those murderous machine guns.  As the smoke and the noise ended, so did the strafing along the beach. But there were still the Japanese mortars to deal with and, being obscured by the elephant grass, it was not possible to see them.  Creeping quietly through the grass, with a section of the Worcesters, Penny cleared the grass after about fifty yards and saw open country. And there were mortars, perhaps half a mile away.  Once again the gunners’ response, but this time with the guns of the whole Battery replying with devastating fire, and the Japanese mortar fire ceased.  And so the situation was restored.  The bloody fighting continued, with the bridgehead taken only at great sacrifice by the men of the Worcester Regiment, and the day was won by the narrowest of margins.

On the BBC Radio Station that evening, noting the current events off the war, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, said, “And today we crossed the Irrawaddy on a bamboo stick and a piece of string”.

Postscript:

Penny did not know at that time that Fred Sproule and Art Frampton, also members of the Victoria Branch of the Burma Star Association, were flying their Hurricanes in support of the crossing. Only 56 years later did he learn of this!   

      

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