By Frank Merrett
Fourteenth Motor Launch (ML) Flotilla was about to embark from Milford Haven on one of the longest journeys undertaken by such small craft in modern times. Other MLs had gone out to the Far East before, having been lifted on to larger ships and off-loaded at the other end, but we were due to sail the whole way under our own steam. None of the officers in our flotilla, except the senior officer, had any experience of ocean navigation. Most of our work up to this point had been close to shore and involved only pilotage; that is, navigating from points on shore. Accordingly, we were sent, in batches, to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for a course in navigation which lasted for three weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed the ambience of this marvellous old building. The wardroom mess was the famous painted hall with its lovely panelling and ceiling. Our quarters were sumptuous compared with what we were used to on board a Fairmile ML and we had access to a full-sized billiard table in the lounge. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about how to be a navigator and came out top of the group in the final examination much to the chagrin of some of the rest of the group who were far more senior than I.
When I returned to Milford Haven I was transferred to a new craft and promoted to the post of first lieutenant to the skipper, Bruce Allen. Our third officer was a New Zealander, Tiff MacKay. At this time a number of New Zealanders who had volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm as navigators were commissioned and then drafted into Coastal Forces because they were not needed as air crew. As part of the refit our existing armament was enhanced by replacing our 3 pounder QF gun with a 6 pounder, but the chief alteration to the ship was the installation of four 500 gallon petrol tanks, two on each side of the upper deck. Fairmile MLs were very seaworthy craft, but being made of wood and therefore, very light, they were extremely lively in any sort of sea. Having these tanks on the upper deck made the craft roll abominably but they were essential because with our existing fuel tanks, which held only 2,000 gallons of fuel, we could never have made the vast distances we now had to travel. As soon as the refitting was completed we were on our way and our first was the longest leg of all.
Our first port of call was to be Gibraltar and because of enemy activity we had to travel far out into the Atlantic Ocean to get there. We were a group of twelve craft under the command of the flotilla leader, Lieutenant Commander Leslie, and because of the distance we had to travel we cruised on one engine only, alternating between port and starboard, in order to save fuel. Each morning and evening, provided that conditions were suitable, we used our sextants to gain star sights and at noon each day we took sun sights to check our dead reckoning positions. We then checked our estimated positions with each other to make sure we were right. We became quite skilful at this after a time and accomplished the journey successfully, so our training course in navigation bore fruit.
Despite our extra resources and our attempts to be economical with fuel some craft ran low and had to be towed by others. In the end some tugs had to be sent out from Gibraltar to bring some members of the group home, but somehow or other our craft managed without a tow. The thing that I chiefly remember about the Rock was the brilliance of the lights as we approached just after dark. After four years of blackout in UK and our dark voyage through the Atlantic it was a revelation which made one want to repeat the cry, “Put that light out” so often heard back home. We had only a few days in Gibraltar but we thoroughly enjoyed the sunshine and the freedom to come and go after the wartime restrictions we had become so accustomed to.
Our voyage now took us along the coast of North Africa calling in at various ports on the way to pick up fuel and fresh provisions. These trips took from two to three or four days as a rule. We stayed briefly in Algiers and Bizerta, but the place of most interest was the great naval base at Malta. We stayed here a little longer than at the other ports and managed to have a look around the island, which had withstood the Axis onslaught of earlier years and earned itself the George Cross. Valetta had suffered enormous damage, but still managed to make us welcome.
From Malta we continued our eastward journey to Benghazi and then Alexandria, the other great Mediterranean naval base. There again we had a longer stay that enabled us to take a short trip to Cairo and to see the pyramids. From Alexandria we next navigated the Suez Canal stopping off at Port Said before entering the Red Sea. By now we were accustomed to our short trips from one port to the next, but once in the Red Sea there were no short trips and some of the crew began to suffer from heat exhaustion. We were supposed to take salt tablets every day to offset the minerals lost through sweating in the excessive heat. The stokers were the chief sufferers as they spent so much time below decks in the heat of the engine room. Whilst sailing through the Mediterranean Sea we had adopted the habit of stopping engines at about noon each day so that those who wanted to could take a dive over the side for a short swim. This helped to keep us cool and saved the monotony of constant sailing. In the Red Sea we continued to do this, but made sure that we had a rating standing by with a rifle in case sharks should be seen.
There were fewer ports in the Red Sea than in the Mediterranean so we had to go as far as Massawa (now Mits’iwa in Eritrea) before we made the shore again. Then it was Aden, another outpost of the Empire and a great trading port. From Aden we sailed along the Arabian coast stopping off at Mukulla on the Arabian coast (Hadramut in Saudi Arabia). I cannot remember why we called in here except from sheer curiosity. For a start there was no harbour and no pier so we had to anchor and go ashore in small boats, but it was very interesting to see such a small, isolated and primitive community. It gave the same feeling, one imagines, that the first African explorers must have experienced as these people seemed never to have met white folk before.
The Kurya Murya Islands (off the coast of Oman) were our next destination and because they formed a staging and re-fuelling post for aircraft flying from India to the Mediterranean we were able to fill all our tanks. It should perhaps be mentioned that the fuel we used was high octane, the same as that used by aircraft at that time, and was not always in good supply. We had to pick it up when and where we could and here they had immense supplies. This was our last port of call before reaching Karachi where we arrived a few days before Christmas 1944. Soon after the turn of the year we sailed south to Bombay which was to be our refitting base. We had no further use for our upper deck petrol tanks and these were soon removed. We were then invaded by an army of Indian carpenters who set about repairing various parts of our craft which had succumbed to the battering of the journey. There were leaks to be repaired and endless small jobs to be done. These chaps squatted about all over the craft working away diligently using the most ancient tools but they were good craftsmen and did their job well. Once again we were able to make good use of our time in port and took some leave.
It was good to be right away from the sea after so long on our journey. It was soon after this, in March 1945, that the craft I was serving in was assigned a new captain, Lt. Paul Prosser from Cape Town, South Africa and a new third officer, Sub-Lt. Bob Bell. The three of us got on very well together, a very necessary state of affairs in the cramped quarters that we shared. This was the happiest partnership I enjoyed during my time in Coastal Forces. The three officers on a Fairmile ML shared the wardroom, which had four bunks, of which the two lower ones served as sitting space for meals and entertaining. In the centre of the wardroom was a table with pull-down flaps for meal-times but unless the sea was very calm it was usually safer to eat from a bowl kept safely in one’s lap. A small lavatory with a shower (the heads) was attached. There was also a lobby with a small galley and hanging space for coats, boots and oilskins. The quarters were very cramped but it was much worse for the ratings on their mess-deck forward. Because of the cramped conditions we all received a small extra payment each day known as ‘hard lying’ money.
Once all our refitting was completed we set out once more, proceeding southwards from Bombay to Cochin. It was a fascinating trip along the Western coast of India. The pilotage was easy and we were far from the centre of the war. From Cochin we went on to Colombo. This was the headquarters of the East Indies station. Colombo we found quite delightful. I recall that on my first morning I decided to take an early walk on my own through the local park area. I had not gone far when I was confronted by an enormous elephant quite by itself coming along the pathway towards me. It had obviously been left out to graze overnight and I thought that it should be OK, so I stood my ground and it just walked past as if it had been a cow or a horse grazing in the English countryside. However, it was a bit of a shock at the time. Whilst in Colombo we used to travel a short way down the coast to beautiful sandy beaches at Mount Lavinia to swim.
After a short stay in Colombo we were sent to Trincomalee on the other (eastern) side of the island where the situation was completely different from that in Colombo. ‘Trinco’ was an isolated naval base rather like a Scapa Flow in the tropics with absolutely nothing to go ashore for. I spent most of my spare time sailing the boat’s dinghy. A characteristic of time in the Navy, generally, was of long periods with nothing much to do, apart from the daily routines, followed by shorter periods of intense activity.
From Trincomalee we sailed Northwards to Madras and then on to Vizagapatam and, finally, up the Hooghly river to Calcutta. This time we were reversing our previous journey by going up the Coromandel (eastern) coast of India. I was absolutely fascinated by India and especially by Calcutta. The squalor of such a city is absolutely awful, but the sub-continent as a whole contains so much that is strange to Western eyes and of such antiquity. My interest probably reflects early reading of Kipling.
Soon after our arrival in Calcutta we became part of the force that was to carry out the assault on Rangoon. By this time the Japanese armies in Burma were in retreat having been beaten back from the frontiers of India at Imphal and Kohima. We first had to cross the Bay of Bengal to Akyab (now Sittwe in Burma) where the various elements of the assault force were beginning to assemble. After many weeks of piloting our way around well-marked coastlines we now had to remember our navigational skills in order to cross a considerable stretch of ocean. The assembled force was quite impressive with hundreds of landing craft and assault vessels, larger landing ships with tanks and armoured vehicles escorted by the cruisers Penelope and Black Prince, numerous destroyers and, of course, ourselves.
It was in Akyab that I first directly witnessed the shooting down of an aircraft. It was a Dakota; one of ours of course, and it must have been brought down by so-called ‘friendly fire’ since there was no enemy nearby. After several days we moved down to Kyauk Pyu where we were joined by some additional craft and then we were off. Our group was led by the six-inch gun cruiser, Penelope, which made a splendidly impressive sight as we made our way southwards. As at the Normandy landings we saw not a single aircraft as we approached our destination and sailed across the Irrawaddy delta and up the Rangoon River.
The assault was a bit of a washout because by the time we arrived the Japanese army had left. Our craft had been in the vanguard in the final run-in and we were among the first to tie up alongside within the harbour. The city was occupied only by civilians happy to see the back of the Japanese. There were piles of fermenting rice on the jetties and wharves and heaps of useless Japanese currency, literally millions of Rupees-worth, littering the streets. It was quite useless, of course, and nobody bothered even to stoop to pick up the notes except as mementoes. After the capture of Rangoon our duty was to ensure the safety of the myriad channels of the Irrawaddy delta. We had constant alarms concerning Japanese boats or parties of Japanese troops crossing the delta, but though we dashed to and fro in pursuit we had no luck in contacting the enemy.
At last, on the day that the Germans surrendered (8 May 1945), a situation developed in which the remnants of the Japanese army were plainly evident and easily attacked. It was also the day on which we drank the last of the export ale we had stocked up with back in Milford Haven. The crunch point was at a bridge across the Sittang River just to the North-east of Pegu. Here, the Japanese in full retreat from the advancing 14th Army were fleeing across the Sittang into eastern Burma and Thailand. If this bridge could be destroyed, the Japanese would be trapped between the river, which was swift and wide, and the British army.
This was the task now given to us. We were to sail some 150 miles out of the mouth of the Rangoon River and up that of the Sittang. There we were to approach the bridge and destroy it, either by gunfire or by depth-charge demolition. We were given to understand that the bridge was not defended and that the troops using it were in pell-mell flight so that it should have presented no difficulty. We studied the charts of the area carefully, but could see no sign of any bridge. Indeed, the only comment to be seen on the area we had to investigate was “Dangerous to Navigation”, which was not a very encouraging start. There were no depths marked, no details at all, only a hazily drawn coastline. “Oh well, once you get up the river just keep going until you get to the bridge”, they said, “and destroy it”. That was all there was to it. After all, anyone can see a bridge and we had with us an Army demolition officer who knew all about blowing them up so what more was there to say? We also had with us a Burmese interpreter, although at this stage his role was a matter for conjecture. Later on, he proved to be indispensable.
We set off, four boats under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Leslie our flotilla leader, just before dawn and made our way out to the open sea and the Gulf of Martaban. The town lay still in a hopeless disorder occasioned by the departure of the Japanese army and from wrecked godowns on the quay came the smell of rice rotting after being soaked with rain. It was in a dark yet more or less orderly confusion that we left the quayside in Rangoon Harbour on V-E Day plus one, some five days after our first unimpressive entry and occupation of the city.
The early morning was extremely dark and the twinkling of her stern light was all that remained of the craft ahead which had become one with the night around us. The rude awakening from sleep at 0200 in the close atmosphere of the wardroom had dismissed all thought of further rest and I stayed on the bridge so that Paul could prepare himself for the task ahead.
The cloud was heavy and even before we had left the bleak desolation that was the estuary of the Rangoon River, the sky had redeemed its promise and the rain fell, driven by frantic gusts of wind. Coming from the south, the rain obliterated everything and I strained into the void ahead until my eyes ached, for at fourteen knots it is best not to hit the next ship ahead should she suddenly slow down. We held our course, however, and eventually the weather lifted and we were able to look around us. There ahead were the other boats emerging one by one from the driving rain. It was still dark and the leader decided to cruise around until first light so as to make a good departure. I went below then and when I awoke to breakfast we were some twenty miles off the mouth of the Sittang River. It must be admitted that the blank space on the chart showing the location of the estuary and inscribed “Dangerous to Navigation” had not increased our confidence about a successful outcome to what promised to be an exciting and hazardous task, but a bright and sunny morning did a lot to bolster our hopes
At about ten o'clock we entered the mouth of the Sittang River, but it was so wide that we hardly realised the fact. Far on our starboard hand were sharp rocks jutting many hundreds of yards into the ocean, whilst to port were mist-shrouded paddy fields marked by an indistinct 1ine where the sky became water. At noon we stopped for a while to embark ammunition from one of the boats. When we proceeded our decks were covered with ammunition boxes as we began to feel our way cautiously forward in the hope of finding a channel to take our 5ft.3in. draught. It was here that we ran into the first of the surprises that the river had in store for us. The ebbing waters were rushing past us and long before we had finished moving the heavy boxes of ammunition we were hard aground. This did not perturb us unduly because in the waterways around Rangoon to go aground was a common occurrence. On the eastern and western horizons we could the see the low coastlines of the river estuary while everything shimmered in the noonday heat.
Ours was the only ship with an echo sounding device in working order, so we had taken the lead and zig-zagging across the bows of the others we attempted to steer a mean course of due North where we could see the hills of Kaung-zun in the distance. Our reports of soundings became steadily less and less until we recorded only three feet underneath us. Shortly after that we touched bottom: just a little bump, but before we could go astern, the flooding tide had pushed us well on and we were fast. As we made effort after futile effort to get off, the screws churned up mud and silt from the bed until the water looked like gritty tomato soup. We must have been stuck longitudinally along a spit of mud, for as the tide rose steadily, we were carried with it further on to the bank. Despite all attempts at anchoring fore and aft, the ship adopted a crazy rolling motion in which the keel touched and jarred on the river bed every time she came upright. We launched the dinghy and two seamen were ordered to pull round the ship at some ten yards distance to take soundings, but to no avail, All around us we had reports of depths of three feet or less. During this time the ammunition boxes had begun an ominous sliding about the deck and were not secured before at least one man had a nasty cut on his shin.
It was easy to observe now that we were being swept along broadside on, dragging both anchors with us, so it seemed that there was but one expedient we could resort to as a last effort. At this stage almost everyone was sickened at the thought of remaining aground after the tide turned whilst the shuddering, jolting roll of the boat was doing nothing to boost our morale. However, activity came as relief to anxiety and the stern anchor was soon brought inboard. I let out another shackle of cable for'ard and by a great stroke of fortune she held. Slowly and still with the most disconcerting movements, threatening at any moment to throw the lot of us overboard, we turned to stem the flow and it was only then that we realised what a colossal tide was running.
It gurgled and gushed as it ran along our hull and to our utmost relief the soundings began to rise. At five feet the rolling almost ceased, but so then did the tide. The water was now still along our sides and this brought forebodings until a shout from the forecastle: one glorious fathom. We must be free. Start up the engines. Up hook. A rush and a scuffle and the anchor and cable were inboard quicker then I have ever seen, and cautiously our craft nosed her way for'ard.
One fathom. One fathom, for ten minutes or more, then a confident nine feet, increasing and increasing. The relief at our release from the horrible sensation of a ship aground could almost be seen to lift from the ship. Faces began to resume the old smiles and some even mentioned stand-easy char, a thought which had not occurred to one of us yet, although it was now past noon. The other three craft across the flat expanse of the estuary seemed a tremendous distance away but an exchange of signals gave us an approximate course to reach them in safety, which we did, some fifty minutes later. The tide was now ebbing fast and a decision was made to anchor in the deepest water we could find, observe the channels at low tide and proceed further up on the morning flood. By 1400 we had our picks down in 5 fathoms and were doing full justice to a lunch, which had somehow appeared out of the confusion of the fore-noon.
Most of the remainder of the afternoon was spent in trying to fix our position. This proved difficult, but an approximate position was worked out from our small-scale Admiralty Chart and a number of Army Chartlets that, however, gave no indication of channels or depths except for a graded colouring of blue which indicated water, sometimes. Two of the boats seemed to find great difficulty in staying where they wished to be, for several times one or other of them would slide merrily past us, her anchor still down and doing about 6 knots stern first. Then, with her pick swinging below her bow she would slowly come past us again, just making a couple of knots headway to try again. We kept a check on the steady fall of the tide which seemed satisfactory enough and at about 2100 after having supped, we were preparing to turn in. One last look around to see that all was ship-shape for the night showed our anchor from which we swung at the end of 25 fathoms of five and half inch hemp, was holding satisfactorily. A report of seven feet from the leadsman was not so favourable however, as a glance at the water showed a still considerable flow. Despite our supposition that the ebb could not flow much longer, the CO, Paul Prosser and I decided to remain on deck for a while. Our bunks were made up on the quarter-deck as we stood there chatting, he in his pyjamas and I in a pair of cotton underpants and leather sandals.
As it was now quite dark we began to throw small pieces of paper into the water to estimate the direction and speed of the flow. A quarter of an hour found not the slightest suspicion of the ebb abating and shortly afterwards we were in five and a half feet of water. Now, almost imperceptibly at first, she began to take on a list to port. No jarring, no rolling this time, but an almost sinister lowering of the hull once more on to the sand. All hands were brought up on deck and ordered to wear life-belts, the ammunition was re-secured and all upper-deck gear made as safe as possible. As time went on with the water gurgling softly along our sides in its unabated hurry to the sea the ship tipped more and more alarmingly until the deck was at an angle of 30 degrees or more.
The anchor was still holding, but our position was becoming increasingly precarious. We managed to launch the big Carley raft and blow up the rubber dinghy as the hands slipped and slid upon the deck now slippery with dew. This employment was designed more to give the crew something to do than through any suspicion that we might have to use them. After all we had been aground times without number and, although this was rather disconcerting, there was no doubt in our minds that we should come off easily enough on the flood.
At about 23.15 we reported to the flotilla leader that we were hard aground with a 45% list to port: he responded that that was nothing unusual. A few minutes later our paper throwing indicated that the ebb had at last finished and gradually our pieces of paper began to bob, slowly but surely, in the right direction. The tension eased and although we ordered the hands to remain on deck we felt sure that within the hour we ought to be afloat again. Paul wandered, or rather groped, his way to the bridge and I had come aft to stand on the quarter deck, when a strange noise assailed my ears as of a great wind blowing, or the murmuring of shingle on the beach. It was pretty obviously the tide rushing in and I shouted up to the bridge to tell Paul that she was coming in pretty fast. The noise became louder and louder as the wall of water came nearer and nearer, until with a thump and a spray of water over the transom it hit us. The ship bounded forward like a horse struck with a whip as the water floated her and carried her with its impetus. We struck the bottom a couple of times and rolled violently, but we were afloat for a few seconds. The engines roared into life as we made an effort to get into deeper water. This churned up tons of silt but we touched bottom again, this time settling against a bank along our starboard side.
The excitement of those short two minutes were over, but from the quarterdeck, where I still stood, I could see another wave rearing itself to some six feet following closely on the heels of its predecessor and more action, I imagined, would not be long overdue. I was not mistaken for as this second wave hit us on the port quarter the craft was picked up and thrown with a resounding crunch on to the bottom on her starboard side. The starboard gunwale was well under water and most of the crew had been hurled overboard by the impact. I clung frantically to the port side guard-rail and, to my horror, saw yet another great wave, which I judged to be some 10 feet high, about to strike us. As the ship endeavoured to right herself from the earlier blow this giant wave struck and she was thrown right over. The mast and most of the upper works were carried away or flattened as she rolled over and hit the bottom again and again. The engines vanished through yawning holes in the hull.
I, with all but six of the remainder of the crew, was catapulted into the water right over the pom-pom mounting. My first instinct upon finding myself alone in the darkness and the swirling water was to make for the ship, which could still be seen. In fact, those six of the crew who were not thrown overboard remained on the hulk for a couple of hours. It was only then that I realised just how strongly the tide was running. Swimming as hard as I could, I was being carried swiftly away from my objective. As I more or less lay back on my life-belt and thought frantically what to do I touched the bottom. I tried to stand, but found it impossible. It felt as though the ground was passing under me at about 10 knots which, virtually, it was. Almost at the same time the dinghy was borne down upon me, but as I struggled to right her and climb aboard she started to break up through a collision with other debris and by the time I had received a number of nasty knocks in fruitless effort she was swept out of my reach. The only course of action open to me was to run, swim and float with the tidal stream and hope for the best. Nothing could be heard but the roaring of water, and nothing could be felt but wetness.
Almost the best happened, for about five minutes afterwards I saw ahead of me the rubber dinghy with a number of persons hanging on to it. I felt enormously relieved to have company as I joined them and then started to realise what had happened to me. I had swallowed pints of water, thick with silt, oil and petrol and my mouth and lips burned horribly. All around me people were being sick from swallowing even more of this horrible mixture than I. After a couple of minutes, believing myself to be the most senior of the crew present as I could see only seamen to either side of me, I called for a shout of names in rotation from my left and was more than pleased to find that together with ten hands of the crew, including the Petty Officer/Motor Mechanic, there were the Burmese interpreter, the Liaison Officer Major Cranmer and his two signallers, Paul, who had a knock on the head and was feeling rather groggy, and our 3rd Officer, Bob Bell.
I worked my way round near to Paul and we decided that, as we could now not even touch the bottom, we could do nothing except keep together and drift with the tide. One of the crew had an escape kit with him containing a small compass and another had a watch which was still functioning. From the position of the Pole star and the compass we judged that our course was roughly NNE and from our observations earlier in the day we estimated that this should take us right up the main stream of the river and thus give us a fair chance of reaching one of the banks. It was by now extremely dark and from so low a position in the water we could see little. We did, however, spot a light from one of the other craft and all together shouted for help. This craft was evidently having problems herself and was probably still anchored, because although our shouts were answered there was no movement to help us. It would have been almost impossible for her to assist as every so often we could touch the river bed with our feet and proceed for short distances by making giant strides instead of floating. When we saw the ML disappear from sight in the blackness we abandoned all hope of outside help and decided that we would have to rely on our own resources, such as they were.
By this time, say midnight, the dinghy had pretty well deflated and served only as a means of holding us together. The pump was found to be smashed and the air had been escaping from numerous punctures. Every now and again we fancied that the dark shape of land could be seen ahead, but again and again as we struggled towards it and thought we were getting near it would disappear. At last, however, we did find a chunk of blackness which proved to be real dry land. By this time our limbs were becoming chilled and the anticipation of setting our feet on dry land, not covered with brown water, once again spurred us to gargantuan efforts to work our way over to the land, which appeared to be on our right. Straining against the tremendous flood and towing our useless dinghy, we got inch by inch nearer to the bank until it seemed to raise itself high above us. The bed of the river made the climb upward extremely difficult because our limbs were by now very tired and our feet were sinking up to the ankles in slimy mud.
It was probably about two o’clock when we struggled on to a low bank of salt grass to fling ourselves down in relief and thankfulness [This was ¾ mile from the target bridge and 40 miles ahead of the British Army advance according to Paul Prosser]. It was hard to believe what had happened in the last few hours. Less than four hours before we had been sitting in our wardroom listening to the gramophone, with drinks before us and cigarettes lit up and now our home was being spoiled and smashed by the waters of a muddy Burma river. But we had little time to think of such things. We estimated that we were on the right bank of the entrance proper to the Sittang which meant that all around us the land was still occupied by the Japanese and here we were shivering on an exposed bank, which would probably be covered by the tide within an hour, without clothing, food or weapons. We had seen lights ashore and were quite prepared to find Japanese patrols on the move. Luckily a signal flag locker had been washed up shortly after we landed and with its contents we covered our nakedness and bound up our feet. Then we made the unsettling discovery that the flags were not ours and decided that, even if we were the only ones to have lost our ship, the others must have had a very rough time to have lost such a fitting. The next thing was to post sentries around our little encampment and we all lay up under the bank with someone looking out in each direction. Our bank seemed to stretch inland to where the ground began to rise some two miles away and appeared to continue along the river bank for a considerable distance to either side of us. The Burmese interpreter and Paul made a short reconnaissance to confirm this but were unable to find a village near at hand as they had hoped, or anyone who could have given them information regarding our exact whereabouts and that of the enemy.
It was on their return that we made a discovery that stopped all hearts for a moment. A small boat was approaching from the sea and appeared to be making for our exact spot. Each man held his breath and clung closely to the earth for we supposed that a patrol must have seen or heard us approach the shore. The dim shape passed our position slowly and voices we heard as it went did nothing to reassure us. Those who were watching turned their attention once more to landward, where we supposed our greatest danger to lie, while the rest of us returned to a fitful shivering doze. Alarm again: this time a figure appeared approaching slowly from inland. Again, we froze to the ground as the figure of a man approached over our horizon. One man clutched tightly to a hockey stick, which was our only offensive weapon, a feeble enough armament against an armed Japanese. The rest of just waited. Suddenly, he tripped on one of our party and his startled exclamation identified him as our guide and we could have flayed him for the anxiety of those last few minutes.
All was quiet then till just before sun-rise at about 4.30 when we saw three figures moving amongst a clump of bushes a mile to the north of us. They appeared to be carrying arms and moving towards us in a desultory manner as though looking for something, but hoping not to find it. Then the three grouped themselves and let out a mighty shout that left no doubt as to who they were. It was a hard job to keep some of the more rash of our party from jumping up and rushing to meet those who had just given such a welcome shout. One of the officers of the party went forward and within half an hour we were joined by my friend Sub-Lieutenant Rodhouse, the navigator from the Senior Officer's craft, and five ratings, which now made our party up to 23. From them we heard how their craft had suffered a similar fate to ours. We were relieved to find that it had been they who had passed our position the night before on a Carley raft. The others had paddled past earlier on a wooden flag locker. Most of the survivors were now wearing flags: we were indeed a multicoloured group and could have passed as members of the Harlequins Rugby Club.
It was now light and we began to muster our resources and think out a plan of action. We were still without footgear, the flag-binding process proving impracticable, but had managed to cover our nakedness, although the sun was already beginning to be felt upon our bare upper works. The new additions to our little band had with them in the Carley raft some emergency rations and some water, but we decided against starting on them so soon as there was not enough of either to last us for more than a day. The tide was ebbing and our problem was to cross to the West bank and plan a route for Rangoon, which we supposed to be some 90 miles to the north-west. The major and I made a reconnaissance of the water, but decided that it was still too deep for a crossing. Eventually however, at about 0730 we made a successful attempt and holding hands we managed to cross the river. In the centre of the stream, the water was flowing very swiftly and one false step would have meant being swept away had we not taken the precaution of keeping ourselves linked together. The river bottom was fairly solid mud. From the centre we could see the Sittang Bridge. Although this helped to fix our position, it gave also the unwelcome knowledge that the Japanese were not far away and might well have observed our crossing. On the west bank the mud was much softer and we had to help some of our party to extricate themselves, but we lost no time in getting under way and abandoned the Carley float and the rubber dinghy which had served us well up to this point.
The land where we got ashore stretched low and bleak in all directions, but to the SW we could see trees and rising ground and decided to make for it in the hope of finding some kind of habitation. We were still very much afraid of bumping into Japanese patrols and proceeded with the utmost caution. Along one track we saw boot marks which had obviously been made very recently by troops. We knew that none of our people were so far south, so every rise in the ground and every clump of bushes, which fortunately were very few, was treated with great distrust. At one time we thought we saw the other two MLs standing out to sea from the estuary, but I think we were mistaken. Shortly after we had started our march, we were very disconcerted to see a Japanese landing craft come down the river so we kept ourselves well out of the way. Once we saw some people walking along in single file way over to our right, but I think they were Burmese going to work in the fields.
We had been walking for about two hours under the hot sun and we were now very hungry and thirsty when ahead of us over the perfectly flat mud we saw an ML obviously aground and decided that it must be one of ours. We continued our march in good style and actually had started making plans for salvaging her and the possibility of floating her at the next tide and getting her back to Rangoon, when we received a setback to our scheming. Between us and the ML was a group of men around a couple of small native boats. We continued to advance and as we did so a dozen or so of them began to move away from us leaving six or more behind.
The others lagged behind while Rodhouse and I, who had been in the lead, went forward to investigate. They were now about a mile off and as we continued to approach they took up positions out of sight of us in and behind their boats. I was convinced now that they were Burmese, but we still had to face the fact that they might be Japanese and obviously they had no more idea of who we were than we had of their identity.
The problem was soon settled, however, for as we approached even nearer we discovered the men to be Burmese who had taken us for Japanese and were trying to make themselves scarce. At first they were not too friendly, but soon proved to be generous beyond measure and filled us with their meagre stocks of water, boiled rice, eggs and mangoes. Seldom has food tasted so sweet, for by this time it was nearing mid-day and we had not eaten since the previous evening. We then tackled them on the subject of reaching our ship for between us and the vessel, which was now about three miles away, were several deep and swiftly flowing streams divided by low sand-banks. The whole area of the estuary was covered with these low sand-banks one of which had proved our downfall and between them rushed the terrific ebb and flow of the tide. One of the boys was willing to take a party out to the ship. Bob and Paul went first but the stream was too strong for me.
I followed about half an hour later with a larger party and even then had the greatest difficulty in keeping my footing as the water, not quite so deep as the first river we had crossed, swirled and gushed past my ribs. This time the bottom was sandy but on the banks themselves we could make good speed. It took us half an hour or more to get to the ship which was in fact our own (ML 591). She was lying in a deep hollow which she seemed to have dug for herself. Her starboard side was supported by the land whilst a crazy list to port left her other gunwale on the water's edge. The water was deep around her but she did not float and Paul called out to us to be careful as the sand was treacherous around where she lay. Never in my life have I been so shocked as to find the devastation wrought by the water on board our little ship. It was appalling. The upper deck had been denuded of all fittings and was bare. Great holes had been made in her decking and sides and through these it could be seen that the interior was no less badly smashed up.
I managed, after a struggle, to get down the hatch into the wardroom. All the furniture was splintered and the deck head was smashed. The water left but three feet to the deck head and all the floorboards were floating about together with broken furniture. It was dangerous work with so much wreckage sticking up from the water and I was afraid of being caught under it, but I made numerous diving sorties to the bottom of the water in an attempt to recover some of our gear. With Bob's help I lifted a number of items of clothing including his great-coat (which he subsequently had cleaned in Calcutta and wore for many years), an old shirt of mine and Paul's gramophone. Nearly everything we recovered was torn and spoiled and after a while we gave up and turned our attention to salvaging some food.
Like all other compartments of the ship the tiller flat was filled with water and it was only after a prolonged struggle that we extricated what remained of our provision store and found that we had a hundred weight of de-hydrated potatoes and 36 tins of baked beans. With these provisions and bundles of odd clothing we started our trudge back to the native craft and the rest of our party, for the sun was high and we were expecting the flood to begin within the hour. By now the streams were not so high nor so strong and we returned safely and easily. By this time some more food had been cooked and the Burmese seemed not at all displeased or perturbed to see the last of their rice and water disappear down the throats of our hungry matelots.
Through our interpreter and guide we deduced that they had finished their business, whatever that might have been in this desolate spot, for there was no sign of human habitation for miles, and were sailing on the next tide for a village several miles to the south-west, from which we gathered that we could get to Rangoon. This seemed to be a step in the right direction and we persuaded them to give us a passage. By this time most of us had been at least partially clothed from the collection we had brought from the ship. Several articles for which we had no use were given to the boat-men who seemed very pleased to have them in payment for their services. It occurred to me later that those we saw leaving the boats as we drew near may well have been Japanese soldiers who had cadged a lift in these boats as we were now doing. These Burmese were certainly not fishing, so it is difficult to imagine what legitimate reason they might have had for being where we found them.
The two boats were, I suppose, thirty feet long and as we had not long to wait for the tide we made ourselves into two parties and settled ourselves down. Rodhouse and I were in one boat with about twelve ratings whilst Paul, Bob and the Major were in the other. We divided up the water, the beans and the emergency packs which contained some sort of sweetmeats and made ourselves as comfortable as possible to await the arrival of the bore for the second time. The boat-men were busy all this time preparing the ships for their voyage and placed the anchor out ahead in the sand. Soon we heard again the sound which was the prelude to the flood and saw a wall of water washing over the dunes where we had so recently walked.
Before it reached us, however, it was no more than two or three inches high and what had been an awe-inspiring flood some two miles off now served to lift our tiny boats gently from the river bed. As the boats became water-borne the boat-men jumped overboard and began pushing them into deeper water and we proceeded in this manner for about fifteen minutes, until it was about three feet deep. Then they hoisted the patched and tattered sail and as they no longer needed the anchor line to pull the boat forward they dragged anchor and all inboard and secured for sea.
The sun now really began to make itself felt and the only alternative to lying in its glare was to creep under the matting cover which served as an awning for the mid-ship section. There the stench was terrific and together with the efforts of mosquitoes, which appeared to thrive on the bilge-water, entirely discounted the virtue of the shade afforded. However, we were making headway in the required direction and that was something. Half an hour after we started we could see both the MLs quite plainly. By this time, in the still-raging flood, they were being rolled over and over several times a minute and both looked as though they would not last many hours before breaking up completely. From the nearer one, which turned out to be the Senior Officer’s, we saw lots of debris floating including the wardroom table, still intact and with the cloth still on it. A number of articles we would have been very happy to have were being allowed to float away with the current. Not having the guide with us we could not make the owners of the boat understand our need for these items and had to sit and watch a barricoe of fresh water go floating by whilst our own throats were parched. We were now being swept along by a peculiar current which seemed to flow across the main flood and despite the tattered old sail, which I feel sure could never have stood a good gust of wind, we made quite a speed. Our quarters were very cramped and the heat of the sun, which seemed to increase rather than diminish as the afternoon drew on, coupled with raging thirst, made tempers rather short. This was our first real breathing space and reaction was becoming apparent. However, most found it possible to snatch some rest and just before the sun went down we regaled ourselves with a handful of cold baked beans and uncooked dehydrated spud, a piece of very sweet chocolate (which was more or less molten) and about a gill of water.
One of the party had been fortunate enough to salvage a tin of cigarettes during the forenoon and we now finished off the tin. Seldom has a smoke been more enjoyed. An hour after dark we found ourselves off a low bank where we turned south for about two miles and eventually they put the boat aground in a small creek. The other boat had beaten us to it and lay some hundreds of yards further up the same creek. We learned that the party who had been her passengers had pushed on to the village where we were to rendezvous with them. Accordingly, we landed our foodstuffs and started to walk to this village guided by an ancient character who carried a pole over his shoulder, from which were slung two huge baskets. I was not able to discover the nature of his load, but I have no doubt that each basket weighed at least 50 lbs.
To start with the going was very easy, although the mosquitoes and numerous other insects were murderous when we called a halt. We were walking on fairly dry mud which was covered with a coarse sea-grass and it cut our bare feet abominably. We were following a path parallel to the creek and before we had gone half a mile we came to a stream with very steep banks, joining the main stream and right across our path. We turned left along it until we came to an easier place to cross and struggled down the soft muddy banks. By now the tide was ebbing again so the water was not too deep. However, the mud was and the fellows who were carrying our precious belongings had to be heaved up the other side as they sank in up to their waists. There were three main burdens: the hundredweight tin of dehydrated potatoes, the tins of water and the sack full of tins containing baked beans, which weighed about 30 pounds. We all took a turn at carrying these loads and from now on the march became worse and worse. It was pitch dark and there was no discernible path. The insects became more and more keen on us and those of us who paused to think about it were horrified at the possibility of meeting water-snakes and other animals, which sprang easily enough to the imagination. The night around us was full of the noises of crickets, frogs, mosquitoes and myriads of other insects.
Most of the way now we were walking through paddy fields knee-high in water, where the blades of the crop caught between the toes and cut or tripped one. Every couple of hundred yards or so we would come to yet another stream to be crossed, even more treacherous than the one before. Most of us had now fallen at one of the crossings and were covered from head to foot with evil smelling black mud while our mouths were parched. I have no idea how long we struggled on in this nightmare of darkness and heat, but it seemed a life-time before we saw lights ahead of us. We stopped then and used some of our precious water supply. Most of the lads were taking it quite well, although all were suffering under the strain that was being put upon them. I had long since come to the conclusion that our guide hadn’t the foggiest notion of his whereabouts, or that his objective differed from ours. The interpreter had told us that this place was one mile from the river and at a conservative estimate I gauged our journey to have covered no less than four miles already. The difficulties of the journey were obviously commonplace to him for he jogged merrily along ahead of us and on several occasions I had to stop him to allow the stragglers to catch up.
For me the effort between struggling on seemed preferable to being eaten alive, but some could go no further without a break so we rested for about 15 minutes. The decision now was which of the lights we could now see was to be our objective. We started again and the incidence of streams to be crossed grew less but to compensate for that, the paddy fields became much deeper and we now waded in water which was waist-high. The fields were very large and although they were divided as usual by mud walls, these were so infrequent as to be almost useless as footpaths and we preferred to steer a straight course across country. We continued in this way for an hour or so more, but none of the lights seemed to get any closer, although occasionally one would disappear and another take its place.
The chaffing and occasional jokes which had been evidence of our earlier cheerfulness at being on our way had now stopped and our band of pilgrims proceeded in silence. Once again we called a halt and sat in silence to recover some strength to continue. By this time, someone in a fit of rage had thrown the tin of dehydrated potatoes into one of the chaungs, so now our loads were lighter and more infrequent. Uncooked, this stuff was almost inedible anyway, so it didn't seem to matter much. In any case, we were no longer interested in food or the proximity of the Japanese, but just something to drink and a dry spot on which to lie down. Some of our party even wanted to sleep where they were on a rain-soaked bank of mud in the middle of a paddy-field, but I would not hear of it and urged them into making another move. Eventually, one of the lights grew slowly nearer and nearer until we struck a fairly dry cart-track and could see, less than half a mile ahead of us, a rise in the ground covered with trees from between which we could see flickering points of light. We approached within three hundred yards and telling the others to rest I went forward with our ancient guide to see the head-man of the village.
There were a great many huts and the village was divided by a long lake, more like a river and the sight of lights and fires was cheering. By signs I conversed with the patriarchal chieftain, who explained that no Japanese were in the neighbourhood. I told him that we were Americans (a name by which all white men were known) and that we wanted food and shelter. He seemed willing enough and I signalled the party to come in. From the start the villagers spared themselves nothing and rushed about preparing food for us. We ate rice and eggs and drank quarts of water from little brass dishes which we dipped into a great earthen jar. Goodness knows where the water came from, but we were in no state to consider the hygiene of the matter. We wanted water and here it was in plenty. As soon as we had eaten we were shown into the upper part of the biggest house in the village, where mats and pillows were laid out for us to sleep on. The circumstances, our surroundings and even the knotty boards upon which our rush mats were placed were no deterrence to sound sleep that night and none of us knew much more till dawn.
I was shaken awake just as it was getting light, and while the others were still sleeping, by a man who was able to make himself understood better then the rest. He told me that the other ‘Americans’ had spent the night in a village 6 miles away. Obviously, our guide had not had quite the right idea. The village head did not seem keen on our prolonging our stay and after some time I got him to understand that we were more that ready to continue on our way if he could give us a guide to this place, which spelt phonetically would be Quizzico, where doubtless we should meet up with our companions. After a breakfast of more hard-boiled eggs and rice we set out but not before refilling our water-tins and improvising a water bottle out of an inflatable life belt.
Now, in the light, we could see the difficulties with which we had had to contend the night before and it was no wonder that the countryside had seemed a veritable slough of despond. There was still the same sort of country to be crossed, but now at least we could pick our way, whilst our guides this time were adept at discovering the drier routes. Every now and again we came to chaungs that had to be waded and once we reached one of such size that we had to walk along its bank until we came to a boat and were ferried across. In most directions one could see tree-covered hillocks which bore small clusters of huts, hardly hamlets, some ten or fifteen feet out of the low swamp of the paddy and during our walk we had occasion to pass through one or two of these. I was surprised to find the natives most incurious, but very helpful in supplying us with water and sometimes milk. The sun was once again extremely hot and we were in need of a rest when we reached our objective after about two and a half hours walking, and were greeted by our comrades.
They had just finished bathing and, having breakfast and from their accounts had fared very well. We were introduced to the head-man, one of Chinese stock, who lost no time in placing the hospitality of a bath and breakfast in our way, too. Most of the village seemed to interest themselves in our ablutions: we had to be extremely careful not to offend their susceptibilities and kept most of our clothes on whilst we tried to separate ourselves from several pounds of mud. A cup of coffee has never been so sweet as that which followed. We rested for a while and Paul discussed with me the best plan of campaign for our withdrawal to Rangoon. Our interpreter arranged with the head-man to supply us with bullock carts and a relay of bullocks at various villages along the way to take us to Pegu and this seemed the simplest way out of our predicament. It appears that the Japanese had had little to do with the area of this particular village and we were assured that we had little to fear from them. On our journey we once or twice had word of them at varying distances, but never actually saw any. Paul told me too, that he had word, by what method I cannot say, that some ‘Americans’ had been seen on the east bank of the river the previous day and this raised our hopes that at least some of the others may have escaped also. By about ten o'clock we started out on a well-defined but rather neglected track. If you have never travelled in a bullock cart over its natural terrain, you will have no idea of its discomforts. Despite the fact that my feet were cut and sore and that walking meant having one’s feet alternately covered with hot mud and water and then dried by a fierce sun and burnt on hard and stony ground, I preferred it to the purgatory of riding.
At times, when the water was shallow, it would be too hot to put one's feet into, whilst to walk on any bare ground required the skill of a fakir. The track got steadily worse as we got farther from the village, until it resembled a very badly ploughed field. It was sometimes inundated for distances of perhaps a half mile and then it would steadily improve until we entered another collection of huts. These villages were some four miles apart as a rule and at one we stopped for some lunch. We were taken upstairs where chairs and tables were set, crudely enough, but to all intents like a restaurant and there we were served with coffee or tea and queer little cakes not unlike bread rolls. Here the bullocks were changed and so we continued during the afternoon. Once one got used to it, the walking was not unpleasant, provided one could keep in the grassy verge and I for one was enjoying the unwonted exercise. As we progressed inland during the day the ground became higher and drier and soon an occasional field could be seen which was reserved for pasture instead of the eternal cereal. Some time during the afternoon I had the good fortune, together with one or two of the others, to be given some milk to drink, which served to give us some fresh energy. Nevertheless, we became very weary as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky ahead of us.
Just before sunset we saw a larger village ahead of us and it was proposed that we should spend the night there; but it was a struggle to cover those last few miles and we did not enter the village until after dark. Here we were surprised to discover a middle-aged man who could speak English. He had once been batman to a Police Officer, I believe, and was eager to tell us all about himself and the village we found ourselves in. He told us that the Japanese had moved out some weeks previously and that a British patrol had been to the village since then, from a small town some ten miles away. We explained our requirements to this chap and were soon taken to the village tank where we performed our ablutions, once again before the best part of the community.
It was good after our long trek to get a wash down and from somewhere a piece of soap appeared. After that we were entertained by the head-man who provided us with a huge duck curry and rice which we ate from platters with forks. We began to feel as though we had indeed regained civilisation with such luxuries. After the meal we did not waste much time, although we enjoyed our cheroots, and were taken some 100 yards to a big house, the upper storey of which was given to us to use. Bare wooden boards do not make for a good rest normally, but I believe that not many of our party were troubled by that discomfort and soon a quietness came over our new quarters, which was not disturbed until the first light filtered through the window-spaces.
Before the light had properly dawned we were on our way again. The road was no better nor worse than the day before and an uneventful five hours walk brought us to a fair-sized village, almost a town, where we saw a Jeep. The driver was a British soldier and when Major Cranmer explained out plight to him he agreed to drive him back to military H.Q. at Pegu, 12 miles away. No doubt our rig was strange even in this place, for our cortege was soon surrounded by Burmese who strained to view these unusual white men. We dismounted from our bullock-cart and Bob and I wandered round to find something to eat. We were singularly unsuccessful until a Chinaman offered us the hospitality of his home and gave us some excellent milky coffee. We sat talking to him and his family and smoking, our first cigarettes for a couple of days. They were Japanese ones, very loosely packed and rather rank, but most enjoyable at that stage. After about an hour a lorry arrived and bidding farewell to our cart drivers and guides we piled into it and were whisked off down a dusty road to Pegu.
We took one or two of our Burmese friends with us and arrived at Army H.Q. by about 1100 where the Major had paved the way for us and told our story. We were taken to a transit camp where they did all they could for us, giving us the chance of a bath and a meal and rigging us out with green battle-dress and a pair of boots apiece. We spent the rest of the day there and slept the night under canvas. It was my first and only experience of the Army in the field and I thought that they did themselves pretty well, but then my own experiences of the previous few days had left me with a somewhat unusual criterion of comfort. During the afternoon Paul took a trip in a plane over the Sittang estuary, but did not see anything of interest. We had reports, rather muddled of course, of another bunch of survivors wandering in the area, but could not do much about them and hoped they would be as fortunate as us in obtaining food and guidance. Our interpreter was commended for his part in extricating us and a very efficient organisation was put into motion for rewarding all those who had helped us in the various villages through which we had passed.
The next day we were embarked in two trucks that took us back to Rangoon. That journey gave me some idea of the difficulties facing the Army transport system in Burma, for the road was appalling beyond description. By 1600 that Sunday afternoon we were being greeted by our friends from the flotilla who marvelled at our escape, but made us anxious as to the fate of the others who had been with us. There were still some 25 men who had not returned and it was with great relief that we saw their return in two parties; the second not until 15 days after the incident. It seems nothing short of a miracle that everyone should have survived the disaster and that our Burma incident closed so fortunately as we boarded the troopship Devonshire on the 24th May bound for Madras.
Footnote: The other two MLs had survived, badly damaged. Of 70 men thrown into the Sittang, not one was lost. In April 2005 Paul Prosser commented, “we were extremely lucky to come through it all … We really had the narrowest of escapes but it is amazing how our youthful resilience and optimism brought us through.”