by George LR Stevens
I have given nearly six years of my life to the Army, the first three of which I spent in Blighty with frequent visits Home, the second three years I have spent wandering in foreign lands and you have been dependant on my correspondence for a picture of my wanderings. This correspondence would at times give you a very incomplete picture as censorship has been strict and rightly or wrongly I have always been very obedient to the censorship regulations not just from a security point of view but also to try and keep you from worrying as you would have done if you had known exactly where I was at certain times. Now that the Security Regulations have been relaxed and I am also standing bye more or less to start my long journey to Blighty for Demob., I am at liberty to give you most of the dope. The picture will be much more complete, the SEAC souvenir will be much more interesting to you, and some of my previous "episodes" will get a more solid background. This will make up for lack of "Episodes" this year and keep you interested until I come home sometime about August or September, I hope.
I am afraid I can only give you a very brief outline as air mail is restricted in weight but I may be able to write more episodes if time permits.
Over the three years and in various hops some repeated many times I have driven Army vehicles from Bombay to within 30 miles of Rangoon, a feat unheard of prior to the war, I should think.
When I landed in India sometime in August 1942 I went straight to Ranchi by train - Indian troop train! I was only there a week and went back to Bombay on a special mission. I was in Bombay with a small party for nearly two months and had a grand time there apart from the want of cash which you have heard all about. I then drove back to Ranchi in convoy, this took about a fortnight. Ranchi is a second class hill station in Bihar in Central India. After a spell there, I drove in convoy to Calcutta and sailed by boat to Chittagong which at that time was fairly near to the Japs. They were at the top of their form and we had air-raids every day. This did not worry me unduly for I had had a thorough grounding in Blighty.
On Christmas Day Reveille was half-past Three and I commenced another long interesting journey by road. On New Years Day we stopped at Shillong, the Capital of Assam. It was one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced and Reveille was about Four in the morning, that was my festive season 42/43. We drove across the famous Manipur Road to the Imphal Plain. In doing so I passed Kohima which I have passed many times before and after the Battle. We camped in the Jungle about 40 miles up the Yiddim Road which was then being built and we lived in Bashas (Episode 1). After a time I travelled on a truck as a passenger for 50 or 60 miles and then I dismounted and was dismounted for about six weeks, with the object of making a road - the road to Yiddim and perhaps some day the road to Tokyo. You remember the episode about the mule this was it. The 4th Corps at that time had a front of 500 miles along the natural barrier of the Chin Hills. We dug a road out of a mule track at the other end was Yiddim, Kennedy Peak, Fort William and the Japs and then more hills and then the Promised Lands - the Plains of Burma. Actually we were now in Burma on the unknown Chin Hills!, about 7/8000 ft. up.
One had the feeling that the yellow gentlemen were watching us from neighbouring hills but we had good fighting men, very much at home - the Gurkhas amongst others patrolling round. It was very hard work the marching and the digging but I amazed myself by sticking it very well and I felt very fit. Of course, it was an excellent climate and beautiful unspoiled scenery like some parts of Scotland. I always will remember getting a big Kirkie parcel there. I often like to think of its journey - I expect you and Rogie carried it to the Post Office, it then went by SMT bus, then train, boat, train, plane, L of C. Truck, jeep, mule and then a bloke carried it to my basha. We got a real kick out of seeing the first truck coming up, the road was finished. I then travelled back to Manipur and went on a M. T. Course to Imphal. I subsequently left by truck for Dimapur across the Manipur Road and caught the Civvy train to the Brahmaputra, there I caught a civvy bus which took me up the beautiful Shillong Hills to Shillong where the Governor of Assam lives. This was a pukka hill station, plenty of white people mostly the wives of tea planters etc. We were in barracks or huts for the monsoon, there was a picture house, and canteens decent shops etc and I had quite a nice time there. It was very cold at nights and the air was crisp and cool. The natives were Khasis reckoned to be the finest porters in the world.
About November, I was now a jeep driver, and along with a convoy of jeeps descended the Shillong Hills to Silchar and crossed the Silchar jeep track, a short cut over the Naga hills to the Manipur Plain thus avoiding the long journey through Assam and thereafter over the Manipur Road. It was a most hair raising journey and a scenic railway had nothing on it. You know the breadth of a jeep, well there was just room and the slightest slip meant hurling down thousands of feet. Hair-pin bends! I had to reverse sometimes twice to get round the corners which were cambered at an alarming angle. Well in the middle of the Naga Hills probably one of the wildest places on the Earth my jeep broke down. I was left with five others for four days before help arrived. It was, the locals informed us, tiger country (By Gad! Sir). We took turns at night keeping the fire in to scare off Mr Tiger. The locals were the famous primitive Nagas and until recently head-hunters. They had no English or Hindi but by means of a picture book I found out there was tiger but no wild elephants. I was eventually towed to the other end of the track which later was to witness some of the bloodiest fighting of the Manipur Plain as the Japs wanted to use the short cut into Assam.
Once again I went up the road to Yiddim but this time I drove up in my jeep all the way. At Yiddim I worked pretty hard mostly jeep driving to Kennedy Peak and back. Although I had been in operational areas many times before I was now definitely in action because our guns were firing in anger. Our opponents were the crack Japanese 33rd Div., up hill now all conquering and experienced professional soldiers - Imperial Troops. I never saw any of these blokes but chaps who had, said some of them were six footers and broad in proportion, not the common conception of the Jap soldier.
(To be continued)
P.S. Not in my best vein, but I finished my last Burmese Claret yesterday, as for fags -!
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The scenery of Yiddim was really lovely and no matter how browned off I was, I could not but marvel at the beautiful view anyway I turned, especially at Dawn and Sunset. The mornings before the Sun warmed up were most pleasant, the air crisp and cool. The Chin Hills! (or mountains) are covered with vegetation, the type and density varying with the height. Even the highest peaks, such as Kennedy Peak 9,000 ft had grass, trees and shrubs. For a few months I practically made a daily journey on my jeep, for jeeps at that time were maids of all work, the road being so narrow, to "the Peak" from Yiddim. On the Peak you looked down on the clouds, if there were no clouds you could see the Plains of Burma, and all the surrounding hills. On a hill a few miles away you could see little puffs of smoke among the trees where our shells were bursting. In the valley between the hills, all one could see was jungle but one knew that patrols were continually on the move, usually described as patrol activity which means that men are dying. There was something unreal about it all, one felt removed from the rest of the world, right up above the world on another planet taking part in a war that very few people in India far less Blighty seemed to know much about, at least in 1943. (Episode to Rogie.)
On Christmas Day I was allowed to have my Dinner but immediately afterwards I had to go up to the Peak where I stayed the night. It was terribly cold at night and divine most of the day except when the Sun managed to get through and there was no wind. Of course, on New Years day as on every day I went up to the Peak and that was my Festive Season 1943/44.
I then got a rest from driving and I commenced to learn Survey which I found interesting but very hard work both mentally and physically. As you know survey work in this type of country involved climbing to the top of hills and taking bearings from other hills. This caused one to fight for breath for the air gets thin at that height.
We were never told anything but knew long beforehand that something was going to happen and it did. We were finally told that strong forces of Japs had cut the Yiddim Road and we were cut off. We were told that the nips were threatening Imphal, also Kohima and the Manipur Road and seemed to be making a bold bid to get into Assam and take India. Our job was to fight our way down the Yiddim Road to Imphal and help the Divs. there to defend Imphal. You would read about it in the SEAC Souvenir, the fighting march of the 17th Div. Meanwhile, the Japs had twice announced that our Div. was wiped out except a few who had taken to the hills but were being mopped up.
It was a strange feeling knowing you were surrounded by yellow fanatics and completely cut off from the rest of the World. But, I forgot and perhaps they did too our good friends the Fighting Air Force and the Transport aircraft, the latter never failing to drop supplies by parachute. For me it was a strenuous time but I thanked God I was not in the Infantry for they had to climb every hill and kill the enemy who were always in well dug-in positions. The Johnny Gurkhas got us through ably assisted by British and Indian Infantries and of course the R.A. who were officially thanked many times for getting the Infantry out of tight corners. For me, all I did was drive my jeep, while the gunners fired and the Infantry cleared each road block, cleared each hill on the flanks and held off the hordes coming along behind. All I had to worry about was enemy shells and the odd sniper who might be left behind. I do some survey work presumably in full view of the enemy which was not too pleasant. The nights were the worse part we formed defensive boxes, you never knew what was going to happen and sometimes you were awake all night praying for the Dawn. A few weeks after leaving Yiddim we arrived at Imphal a distance of 160 miles. We rested for a short time (The Dancing Girl) and we again went into action but at first I was in a village at the Waggon Lines (Jimmy). Now followed the bloody battles on the Manipur Plain when the Japs made frenzied attacks to take Imphal. Of course, at that time the Manipur Road was cut and the 4th Corps was cut off from India except by air. Then followed a terrible time (Bishenpur etc) of shell fire all day, of Infantry attacks at night, of living in holes in the ground, of rain filling the holes with water. I had better be honest and admit I missed some of this because I was twice in dock at Imphal with stomach trouble. Eventually 33 Corp got through the Manipur Road to Imphal and the Japs armies were beaten. We left another Div. to chase the remnants up the Yiddim Road to Burma and went to India to rest at Ranchi. I was given 28 days war leave which I spent in Calcutta. I was completely shagged and much as I wanted to see Kashmir and a bit more of India I could not face the journey for travel in India for British Soldiers is or was at that time unbelievably strenuous. All I wanted to do was to rest and maybe eat when I felt like it, likewise see a few films. We were British Johnnies back from the front line after defending the homes and lives of these people who did not know that a war was on.
It certainly did not worry me personally, but I could not help thinking of my dead comrades and the lot of those who survived and the manner in which they were treated of the white women and officers only, of the very attractive Anglo-Indians and Americans only (mostly engineers and base wallahs with money to burn). However, the B.O.R.'s are used to that and most of them like me are disappointed with India, the country and people. The only redeeming feature to us is the quality of the fighting men mostly from the Punjab, the North West Frontier and the Gurkhas who are not really Indians at all. But, India as a whole has mystified the best brains in the world and who am I to make comment. I went back to Ranchi had a cushy time, got the offer of another leave and duly took it.
When I got back from leave I went out for cushy jobs and was first in the Q stores and then driving the water truck. I knew we were moving and I got the job of driving the Regimental Office which I asked for. We had our Christmas Dinner but Reveille on New Years day was 4 o'clock in the morning, that was my Festive Season 1944/45. Meanwhile, the remaining Japs had been beaten back off the Chin Hills and Mandalay was threatened.
I was on the move again on yet another campaign which I will not say much about. If you look at the map you will see the journey we made, by passing Mandalay, crossing the Irrawaddy at Pagan and then we started fighting but we had the Japs on the plains, we had armour and we moved fast, totally different type of fighting from previous campaigns. We had the Japs foxed they did not know which direction we would strike. According to plan we took Meiktila with all its airfields. The hammer and anvil plan was then to come into play. The main Jap armies were up at Mandalay, our Divs up there were to take Mandalay and then "hammer" the Japs towards the "anvil," not an enviable position for us but probably worse for the trapped Japs.
When all the Japs were killed and formations broken up we were to turn round and proceed to Rangoon and take it. Well as you know they made determined attempts to get us out of Meiktila, they shelled us day after day, they bombed us and they attacked us with infantry at night, they sent small suicide gun busting teams to crawl through the wire and try to get at our guns. They attacked us from the North, South East and West, all attempts failed and we again went on the move, and we moved quickly even for modern warfare.
The armour always went on ahead, then the trucks. When we were held up, our "air cover" did it's stuff and our gunners did likewise. For me it was fairly cushy, I just drove my big truck, the only danger being and that comparatively slight, the chance of shelling, air-attacks, snipers missed by those ahead, and the chance that the cunning devils might let the armour through, come back and shoot at the "soft" trucks. And I forgot also mines and booby-traps. Actually there were more dangers in static positions when we formed a "box," especially at night.
First impressions were that the civilised parts of this country were nice and cleaner than India. The towns and villages were dominated by countless picturesque pagodas but the countryside in places was like Blighty. Of course, it was warmer but I felt at times that I was just driving my car on a pleasure run at Home, and suddenly I would smell something with which I am now very familiar, I would look to the sides of the road and see stiff Japs and equipment scattered around. But for some reason or other one feels no pity, to us they seem like dead animals. Sometimes one passed through a town or village where they had made a stand and all one sees is some smouldering ashes and burnt corpses. Other towns and villages were standing untouched and the population lined the road. There were no cheering or demonstrations, some lifted their hats, some bowed politely, some gave military salutes, some said, "Good-morning," in English, some just grinned happily, others offered us mangoes and bananas, others just stared, but no one tried to beg, we threw ration biscuits to the kids.
We got to within 30 miles of Rangoon when we were told another Div had beaten us to it by landing by sea and air and we were turning round and going North. About the same time we heard about the war in Europe being over. I am now in a village a hundred odd miles from Rangoon resting and waiting to start my long journey home. It is not so bad apart from the shortage of cigs and there is no entertainment of any kind but we are used to that.
As for my comrades in arms, if you speak to an I.O.R. he will not discuss the weather or politics but will tell you that the particular place where one is at the time is not to be compared with the Punjab, Nepal or where ever he comes from. He will tell you the women are not nearly so beautiful, he will tell you about his Bibi and the number of chicoes he has at home. He will tell you when he had his last leave home and when he expects his next. What do the B.O.R.s talk about, mostly Demob. and Repat. Very few have talked to an ordinary white girl as they knew for over three years. Some talk about their wives, their wonderful children and how they are growing up. Some talk about their girl friends and a good many have lost them, married Americans and so forth. The young chaps wonder what their chances are of getting girls when they get home, they wonder about their chances of getting jobs and what the Brave New World will be like. They can stand all sorts of hardship, climate, little sleep, short rations etc but they do ask for plenty mail and cigarettes. They make cigarettes out of green tobacco and air mail paper and joke about it. They joke about the parcels that never come. One consolation is, that letter cards are coming regularly. Eggs are plentiful, so are chickens, mangoes and bananas. Paper money is not readily accepted but underpants etc are. I expect we will be having a kit inspection to see what has been lost in action. There is nothing martial about this place, the little girl from the house next door looks over the garden fence and presents us with a basket of flowers and mangoes. In return she gets a safety pin or needle I will soon have no "lussif" left.
As for myself, my Army career although long has been very modest for I have always refused promotion preferring to be responsible for myself only and not for the girds of others. I have tried to do my duty but have never taken foolhardy risks and by the Grace of God I look like getting home soon to those who have waited so long for my return. Although I am entitled to 4 medals at least, I am no hero. I want no fuss or demonstrations when I come home. I just want to slip back quietly into my niche and forget. One thing I will do and that is, send fags and what comforts I can to the "poor devils" who have to carry on and fight future campaigns and hope that they get them without being stolen by civvies and non-fighting troops.
I'll be seein you very soon (August?)
P.S. That very briefly and scrappily written is my story