Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

Rev Donald Mackay

The following memoir, written by the late Rev Donald Mackay, was published in 1960 in “The Covenanter” , the Regimental Journal of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). It has been reproduced by courtesy of the Regimental Trustees.

 

Days of Preparation:

 

“They’re in one of the L.R.P. groups in Central India, I think, Padre” said the Brigade Major in a hushed voice. “L.R.P.? What’s that Sir?” I asked. “Oh, Wingate stuff, you know”, he replied, “very hush-hush”. My heart sank. A fortnight previously, as the train pulled out of Chittagong, I said smugly to a fellow officer in the 1st Bn, The Royal Scots, with whom I completed two very “sticky” months in the Arakan jungle, “There’s only one way to beat these Japs. Get right away altogether from the roads and rail­ways; send small parties of men com­plete with their own rations and ammo deep into the jungle through their lines; and God help the poor devils who have to do it!”. And now it looked as if I would soon need divine assistance myself! All hopes of peaceful months in Ahmednagar Barracks were shattered.

 

“Proceed to Ghatera” said the Movement Order. But what and where was Ghatera? No-one had ever heard of it, least of all the railway clerk. But research in the remoter columns of a massive India Bradshaw un­earthed the information that it was an halt on an obscure branch line in the central Provinces, with one local train per day.

 

Eventually this train deposited me, some 36 hours later, in the evening, at a desolate station. There was jungle for miles around, a muddy platform, a broken-down station hut, some piles of sodden stores, a few muddy, disgruntled and disreputable soldiers in bush hats; and more rain and mud! The camp - a crowd of muddy tents. I felt unutterably depressed and tired: and promptly begged a fortnight’s overdue leave.

 

Back again with new vigour after the cool air of the hills, and the place did not seem so bad. For two months the Cameronians had been wrestling with new training, new equipment, new methods, and all in terrific heat and drenching rain. They had also (not without casualties) been essaying the herculean task of persuading completely barbary mules to take an interest in carrying loads and crossing rivers. They were burdened with the problems of a big change -over in officers and men; but with it all their cheerfulness and resourcefulness were unimpaired, and I soon found that I was in with a fine bunch of officers and men.

 

The next stage, I must confess, was utter agony - long route marches through the jungle. I had never marched a step before and the introduction was murderous. We began with about 80 miles across country, through forest and jungle, flat flooded paddy fields, and hard roads to Jubbulphore. Aching legs, blistered feet, weary shoulders, wet nights, sodden biscuits, weevily raisins - how it all comes back! This was “toughening up” with a vengeance!

 

One evening I remember still most vividly. We had done nearly 20 miles in pouring rain. My feet were blistered, and the blisters were three skins deep; my muscles were stiff like iron rods; at dusk we reached a river heavily swollen by rain. We stripped, and I proceeded to wade through the river carrying my kit on my head. The water was flowing strongly up to my waist, and the first 30 yards was shingle, sharp cutting pebbles. No Jap torturer could had devised better. I stumbled on, screaming in agony (Padres are not allowed to curse openly!). The other side? - deep, black, slimy mud, in which you sank up to your calves for another 30 yards up the bank, and then pouring rain all night, not even a cup of tea, and nothing but a sodden groundsheet and a scanty bush for shelter. I vowed - well never mind what!

 

There were happier days of course, especially in the jungle on the edge of the large Dukwan dam, on the river Betwa, near Jhansi. In the delightful Indian cold weather we had many more amenities, plenty of food, and much more interesting training.  Perhaps I enjoyed it better because I spent six weeks in hospital, in a comfortable bed, recovering from amoebic dysentery, and followed that with two very happy weeks leave in Simla.

 

Training for river crossings, of course, occupied most of our time, and the mules became more or less docile. we encouraged them to cross by feeding them with hay as soon as they reached the other side, and in time associated this with a whistle, so that when someone whistled on the far bank they would cross over for their feed. In the end a few learned to go over of their own accord. This produced an amusing sequel one day.

 

Mules were all over on the island in the river, grazing. Suddenly in the camp the Orderly Sergeant blew his whistle loudly. Up cocked the mules’ ears, and several hungry stalwarts immediately plunged back into the river and galloped wildly up to the Orderly Room just in time for the Defaulter’s Parade. 

 

In the final Command Scheme, “Exercise Thursday”, in December, we did very well, and got full marks from Wingate and the Chief Umpire for having two of the best Columns in Special Force. Certainly so far as silence on the march, avoidance of litter, training of mules, tracking, river crossings and harbour drill were concerned, we had learned a great lot in a very short time.

 

The Scheme itself was chiefly memorable for our encounter with the West Africans, our “enemy”. They ambushed us neatly as we passed through a village, and what began as a friendly scrap nearly ended up in a bloody battle, as the Africans tried to take away the Jock’s rifles.

 

And so, after a final inspection by the enigmatic Wingate, we were ready to move, just after Christmas. I well remember his final talk to the men, so completely in character, and so utterly different from the usual General’s “pep talk”.

 

“You will be making history” he told them, “it will be a tale that will be told, but remember, most of you may not be at the telling of it”.

 

After a hot, dreary, dusty seven-day train journey across India, we had two or three pleasant days in a tea garden at Silchar, where we were hospitality entertained by a Scottish tea planter. Then we had a nightmarish trek over the hills by the Bishenpur track to the village of Bishenpur, soon to become the scene of cruel and desperate fighting. In five days we had to cross several north-south mountain ranges, some of them over 3,000’ high. The weather was wet and cold, the rations extremely poor, the track hard and difficult, and we were more than thankful to breast the final ridge and see the lovely plateau of Imphal lying before us, surrounded by the hills.

 

There followed a very pleasant month at Torbung, milestone 31 on the Tiddim Road, on a fine hill overlooking the Loktak Lake. I have two personal memories of it. It was there I had my first aeroplane flight. One of the American pilots took me up in his two-seater plane. At first it seemed like a pleasant holiday trip, until he announced that he was going to do a “message pick-up”. He then flew straight at a cliff, on top of which, like goal posts, were perched two posts, with a message attached to the rope between them. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes and said a final prayer for the peace of my soul in eternity was a huge cliff looming high in front of the plane. When I opened them again, it was to look back over the tail, and see the goal posts flat on the ground, and a group of terrified men laying face downwards. We had made it!

 

The other is a day when the Commander of the 14th Army visited the Camp. Unfortunately his arrival coincided with a fire in the mortars’ basha. He had no sooner entered the camp when a series of violent explosions began, and those of us who were with him were more than thankful that he showed, like every good General, a real interest in the kitchens. And so, finally, the great day came. There was a final inspection by General Wingate, and a few of us will never forget that bearded henspeckle figure with his piercing blue eyes. “The theory of warfare is simple: it is to fashion your weapon, and then introduce it into your enemy’s vitals. You in this force are the weapon, and you will shortly be introduced into the enemy’s vitals. You must strike and strike hard  

 

Our battle kit was issued, and then one night we woke to the sound of planes passing overhead. There, like ghosts in the pale moonlight we could see the, DC5, towing gliders eastwards towards the Chindwin, our comrades of 77 Brigade on their way. The die was cast, the adventure had begun; and many Japs soldiers on the Chindwin front must have raised their eyes in wonder on that and many nights to follow -“what was on the way?” They were soon to learn, and to their cost.

 

Our excitement grew. It was only a matter of time. Would all go well? How would the Japs react? Would we be welcomed by fighters, or would we land under fire? Finally, the Movement Order arrived and we set by truck to Bishenpur, and then miserably on foot along the dusty road to Imphal. Finally we turned into the aerodrome, and camped near it for the night. Packing up our kit was the next horror. Six days’ K rations had to be squeezed in somehow, and we all left little piles behind us, towels, caps, comforter, forks, all “phenk do-ed”. In the evening we moved down to the airfield and soon had a plane allotted to us. It was a stir­ring sight. On each side of the strip the DC5 were lined up, each a grey giant bird with a little group of Chindits and mules beside it. Then began the fun of “emplaning” the mules! Three were allotted to each plane, and at least one was sure to be “non co-operative”! In our case, two went up the ramp with little trouble, but one brute had all the makings of a deserter. We coaxed, we pulled, we pushed (warily), we beat, he kicked - all in vain, till finally, by a mighty united effort, we twisted him up the ramp and Bismallah! in he went The fun wasn’t over then, however, as you can’t have mules trotting about when the en­gines start; so we had many anxious moments until they were safely lashed in a sort of bamboo stable at the top.

 

Meantime, Captain Adye stood ready with a revolver to shoot them if the worst came to the worst when the plane started. In the Doc’s plane, I believe, old “satan”, a pony built like a Clydesdale, almost broke loose and started doing a sort of rumba as the plane took off. The DC swayed like a see-saw for a bit, but in the end all was well. “The devil looks after his own”. 

 

“Wal, kids, I guess we better push off now” was the starting signal from the     friendly American pilot. In we climbed, down came the ramp, the safety door was closed, the lights inside went off, the engines opened up with a roar like thunder, the huge plane shuddered, and then as the engines screamed louder and louder we suddenly saw the landing lights of the airfield move swiftly past us. Gradually they sank beneath us, the airfield became a regular pattern of lights, and we were off!

 

For most of us it was our first flight, and we could have wished for a less exciting inauguration! Gradually the mules set­tled down and we began to sing to pass the time, ably led by CSM MacDonald. We were “romin’ in the gloamin’ “with a vengeance, but by the gloomy banks o’ the Chindwin, which we could see dark and sinister below us, in the pale moonlight. Our Rubicon was crossed -and in a few seconds - thank God for the planes!

 

On and on the plane drove into the hostile darkness. Some fell asleep, others sank, peering through the portholes at the dark featureless jungle below. All was going well. The Jap fighters sleep at nights.

 

Suddenly after an hour or so we saw two long lines of bright lights in the jungle. A Jap airfield? No, for our red and green wing lights suddenly flashed on. “It must be Broadway!” - gleaming like its namesake “deep” in the heart of Burma! It seemed fantastic, like a circus ground,. - audacious beyond words - but as we circled down nearer, we could see other plans landing and taking off ceaselessly. Our hearts thrilled with pride at this utter defiance of the Japs. Round and round, lower and lower - what would the landing be like? After all, it was only a paddy field in the heart of the jungle! Suddenly the engines throttled down. We sank lower and lower - and then the engines as the landing lights rushed swifter and swifter to meet us. Trees seemed to hurtle past the portholes - bump, bump, bump sparks from the wheels, and then we were safely down, and the huge plane taxied smoothly to rest. We had arrived! The doors opened. Out we jumped - in Burma! The mules needed no encouragement , and as jeeps trundled past we met our comrades form other planes, and moved off this fantastic air­field into our harbour in the jungle. Not a Jap within miles, although planes had been landing every night for over a week. That night they broke all records -a plane every three minutes all night long without a single casualty. Over 5,000 men and hundreds of animals and tons of stores and ammo. A new chapter had been written in the age-old history of war.

 

We March From Broadway

 

It had been said of war that one remembers only the good and forgets the bad.  That is partly but not wholly true. We all, I am sure remember vividly the happier  days - the comradeship, the excitement, the achievement, the golden pagoda of Shwemyezu gleam­ing in the morning sunshine across the still waters of the  lndawgyi lake, the exquisite pleasure of a “dook” in a mountain stream. But years after, the darker bits can still cause pain in recollection - our anguish when a sniper’s bullet laid a friend low, sudden fear when the enemy threatened  by night, loneliness and pain far from home.

 

Memories of our early days in Burma are mostly happy ones. Rightly or wrongly,  we prided ourselves on being the best-trained column in the whole division.  Lentaigne, our Brigadier, and Gillespie, our Commander deserved the credit.

 

Led in Burma by “Breezy” Brennan, in whose youthful judgement and courage we all had complete confidence, we were ready for anything and anyone. The officers, sergeants and NCO5 were picked men, volun­teers for the job, and we were a very happy column.

 

We Skirt Mawlu

 

Our first glimpse of “angry Japs” was at a safe distance. A day or so after leaving Broadway, as we moved through thick, marshy jungle, we saw Jap  fighters passing overhead to attack Broadway and the Spitfires which had  already landed there, but we ourselves were safely screened for attack by the high trees. It took us about five days’ of steady marching from Broadway at Thora Lwin, on the banks of the Kaukkwe Chaung, to reach Mawlu, on  the railway, where Mike Calvert had already established his fabulous “White City” road block at Henu. My only personal memory is of meeting Calvert suddenly on  the march, as we moved downhill in the evening to a “close harbour” near Mawlu in the woods. He asked for our Column Commander, and it was hard to believe that only hours previously he had been engaged in desperate hand-to-hand battles by night with the Japanese. 

 

Our Task - To cut the Japs supply artery to Imphal

 

It was not, however, our fate to be involved in that desperate affray. Our orders were to skirt Mawlu, move westwards, and cut the main road from Indaw to Homalin. Although we did not yet know it, the Japs had already launched their epic attack through the Chin Hills into Imphal and India, and our job was to put a tourniquet on the artery that supplied this distant front line.

 

Our bypass of Mawlu resulted in the most fantastic night march we ever attempted. Moving all day through the woods, blazing a trail from tree to tree, we kept the Japanese-held town well to our west as we moved southwards, but when night fell our Column was still strung out, vulnerably and hopelessly,  for miles along a path through Nathkoyin and other villages. As it was deemed essential that we should cross the road and railway about five miles south of Mawlu at first light, we kept doggedly on the move. The night was dark, warm and still. The path was cut by numerous dry chaungs, with high banks. The mules bucked and stumbled; men bumped into their behinds, cursed and swore.

 

In breathless silence we passed along the mud track, through one village after another, an eerie sensation, for we knew that many eyes were watching us, and wondered if the silence would suddenly be punctuated with machine gun fire. By good fortune all went well, and at first light we forgathered, dog-tired and hungry at the RV beside the road. Without respite we marched all next day under the blazing sun, without water, through thick bamboo and high grass.

 

It was late in the evening before we made harbour. We were quite exhausted, desperately thirsty, and desperately hungry. My batman, Holmes, and I gleaned a parachute bag full of dark muddy water from a very dirty chaung and then made the most wonderful tea I have ever drunk, five large mugs of it running.

 

Another memory of that weary day also concerns water! As we stood waiting in column for the recce patrol to hack a way for us through the bamboo, a message was passed back from man to man from the front of the column -“pony”. In transit, this message became successively PONY, PANI, WATER, MORTAR - and so on, to the astonishment of the sender, in answer to his request for a pony the whole mortar platoon came rushing forward. 

 

Our First Skirmish!

 

A day or so later we had our first skirmish. We had moved south to cross the Indaw-Bamauk road and the Meza Chaung at Tonbu. As we waited with the mules amid sparse dry teak forest till the advance patrols had put blocks on the road, there was a sudden burst of firing. Lt “Tug” Wilson and others had “bumped” some Japs in the village. It was decided to proceed, and after crossing the road safely we had to run across a wide shallow ford with mules under light fire. Two were wounded, and others had very narrow escapes as they strove to rescue some of the wireless loads which had fallen into the stream. The Japs had their losses too, I believe, and we were glad to move off into the hills before Jap re-inforcements arrived by road from Indaw. It was a rough journey for the wounded, an RAF officer shot through the lung, and an NCO badly wounded in the arm. How­ever we took them on our chargers to some paddy fields five or six miles away, sent an SOS message for a light plane at first light to Broadway and worked all night making a strip on the dry paddy fields. What a thrill it was the next morning to hear about 10 am the strident roar of light plane engines, to see two planes circling warily round our very kutcha landing strip, and gallantly swooping down through the high trees to make a perfect landing. Out stepped two smiling Yanks - we could have kissed them! In a few moments the wounded were safely on board. We held our breath as the planes took off and just cleared the trees. Half an hour later the lads were in Broadway, and by nightfall safely back in the base hospital at Sylhet, where they both made a good recovery. Meanwhile, we went on our way rejoicing! 

 

My only memory (I am sorry to say) of the journey to the Pinlebu Road is of a night in a pleasant Kachin village, where the headman entertained some of us in his basha with draughts of heady rice beer! I hasten to add that we were (on active service) a most abstemious column, even refusing our own rum ration, when it was available, for obvious tactical reasons. 

 

Our Day to Day Routine

 

One day followed another, varied on the march only by the nature of the country we had to cross. Sometimes pleasant enough, along a dry chaung or through dry teak jungle - sometimes desperately difficult, hacking our way through sharp elephant grass, or strug­gling up and down muddy hills with the mules. Always at first light we “stood to”; then, almost at once moved off in file, so that the morning cup of char was seldom possible. Depending on the proximity of the enemy and the need for concealment, we moved on steadily till near mid-day, when we rested the mules and gave the Signals a chance to get going on the air. Then off again - fifty minutes march, ten minutes halt - till between four and five pm, when we moved as quietly as possible into harbour. Fifteen to twenty miles a day was reckoned to be good going. Roads and streams were our main obstacles. It took at least fifteen to twenty minutes to get the whole column across a road, and a lot could happen in that time.

 

Most of our elaborate harbour drill was abortive. I can still see the Adjutant standing hopelessly on a log, pointing in one direction and saying loudly “this is twelve o’clock” Actually, it was often nearer midnight! My own spot always seemed to be next to the mules - which for a number of reasons that needn’t be specified was a safe but not salubrious one. Weapon cleaning and mule grooming were the first priorities - then “stand to” for half an hour, and finally, when the magic word was given “stand down”, a rustling of many men among the leaves, a sound of many chopping wood (despite angry orders to the contrary), and in a twinkling the light of a hundred fires. The Jocks soon reduced drumming-up to a fine art. Two short fat green logs, crossed by two long green logs , on which our dixies sat; bars from wrecked gliders, and even Thomas splints were also in use. Some wonderful meals were concocted on these. The K rations, excellent as they were compared with Indian weevily biscuits, had a certain sameness about them. Corned pork loaf needed some “dressing up” to be palatable, even to hungry men. Rice was a useful adjunct to our diet when available. Our own chef d’oevre was a fruit loaf, broken up and mixed with biscuits, chocolate and sugar and boiled in the sugar bag to become “plum duff”. Our counter-intelli­gence work in harbouring was quite outstanding. A wretched Burmese agent later confessed to our 10 at Mokso Sakan that, hearing the Jocks drumming-up, he had reported to the Japs that there were” thousands of men chopping”! We multiplied this valuable deception by leaving large quantities of K ration tins, cellophane papers, and cigarette packets on the ground. At the beginning we were foolish enough to booby-trap the harbour we had just left with trip-bullets, but as these cost us the services of a Sapper Sgt and others in the platoon, with no apparent dam­age to anyone else but stray cows, we soon gave up this practice.

 

Our Role is Changed After Wingate’s Death

 

 It was during this time that news reached us of Wingate’s death in an air crash. This had a decisive and depressing effect upon our fortunes -and in out heart of hearts we all knew it. Lentaigne, our Brigadier, who succeeded him was a great soldier, but he had not the same influence with the high-ups in politics and the High Command. By this time the 14th Army was fighting for its very life in Imphal and Kohima; “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell had at last got his own way, and our original purpose was abandoned.

 

We became increasingly not the advance troops of a great invasion, but mobile guerrillas to harry the enemy’s own front line from the rear. Lightly armed as we inevitably were, this was to be a gruelling task. Meanwhile, to our pleasure, Brigadier Jack Masters, now famous as a novelist, took over command of the Brigade, and we were given our turn with other columns in setting twenty four hour roadblocks on the road to Homalin. So far as we were concerned, apart from one near tragic moment when a platoon was bombed and ma­chine-gunned by our own planes, our excitement in this period was confined to one major battle with a large Jap convoy. 

 

We Evacuate Casualties 

 

I myself had been away from the column on the previous day with a section evacuating three or four sick people at a rough air-strip about eight miles away at Yeshin. That in itself had proved an adventure, for we got lost on the way, and bedded down for the night in thick forest, with no idea where we were. The planes were due the next morning at 10 am and we pushed on desperately at first light till we found the proper path. Before we reached the empty strip, however, the planes were overhead. They had made their last round when one of our officers, who had run the last mile a la Chris Chattaway, dashed on to the strip, waving his orange “panic” map. Two or three of us arrived immediately afterwards, and I had the pleasure, for the first and last time in my career, of signalling to an aircraft like a traffic cop, by waving my arms! Unfortunately a rifleman was accidentally wounded at the strip itself, and so one of the sick men had to be told at the last minute that he could not be evacuated, but must be taken back to the column, a grievous disappointment which he bore with Cameronian courage! However, the evacuees had not finished their own adventures, for we had a message dropped to us and hour later to go and rescue one of the planes that had made a forced landing on the main road. Miles away, we could do nothing about this, but another plane apparently landed, took off the sick, repaired the damaged plane, and all got back safely to Broad­way. 

 

We Ambush a Jap Column

 

It was nightfall when we got back to the column. They had established a block on the road, on a low wooded hill, thinly covered with scrub, which abutted on a bend of the road as it ran northwards across a paddy field. There was an excellent field of fire in both directions, and they were well dug in and booby trapped. Very tired after the long day’s trek, we ourselves were safely guided through the block to a hillside just behind, where we dossed for the night. There was an air of suspense, however, and I slept fitfully. At first light I was awakened by a strange sound - motor engines These grew louder and louder, nearer and nearer. We sat tense and expectant. Then suddenly all hell was let loose - mortars, piats, brens, grenades and rifles roared into action. We ourselves could see nothing from where we were, but smoke, rising in black clouds through the trees. Then a fusillade of bullets whistled over the ridge above our heads (this we heard later was a “diversion” by one of our own platoons!). The ambush was very successful. At least half-a-dozen enemy trucks were blown up and burned out and they suffered many casualties. The battle raged on and off for about five hours, till we withdrew, and left them to the mercy of other columns up the road. We ourselves came off very lightly, but unfortunately lost a much loved officer and a fine rifle­man, who were mortally wounded and died later that day. They were our first battle casualties, and we had sad hearts as we buried their bodies in peace in their jungle graves.

 

After about three weeks we received orders to move eastwards again to the Aberdeen stronghold, as pleasant jour­ney through a green valley, of which I have only one memory - a very happy one - a conventiclein the cool of the evening, where for the first time we were able to sing aloud “the Lord’s songs in a strange land”.

 

I shall never forget my first view of the lndawgyi Lake. The journey northwards through the Mokso Reserved Forest from the Aberdeen stronghold had been  very difficult one indeed. After leaving Aberdeen, we wandered up the Meza Chaung, crossing I remember no less that nine time in one day, and then we were faced with a terrific climb over ridges nearly 3,000 ‘ high. We were, however, quite safe from surprise attack by the enemy, and the Kachin villagers were very friendly and helpful. After several days, early on a sunny morning, we sw the lake lying far below us, shimmering in the bright sunshine. The sun was glinting on the golden spire of the pagoda on the Shwemyezu just opposite the little town of Lonton. It was a glorious and refreshing sight after so many weeks in the thick jungle.

 

We had stayed a couple of days at Aberdeen (named in honour of Mrs Mary Wingate) and had enjoyed the rest, while refitting with ammunition, food and clothing, The stronghold was a most unlikely one, lying on the side of the long valley of the Meza Chaung, only 15 to 20 miles from the little town of Banmauk, on the main line of commu­nication from Indaw westward. Yet it was never attacked save from the air, and that was very unsuccessful. We had some very pleasant bathes in the warm shallow waters of the chaung, and enjoyed a meal of fresh bread for the first time for many weeks. To the south of the lndawgyi Lake the ground was very marshy, and we moved slowly through it to the little village of Ampon, where we had a skirmish with one or two members of the Burmese Traitor Army. Otherwise we were unmolested, and moved to a rallying point at Mokso Sakan, about half way down the western side of the lake, which is itself some 15 miles in length. I have two memories of those days. One is a sad one, the funeral of one of our Karen platoon, accidentally killed during weapon cleaning. I con­ducted the funeral service in English, while the Sergeant translated it into Karen. They were all Christians, and it was a moving occasion. The other is of a wonderful bathe on the sandy beach at Hepu, in the waters of the lake.

 

The Road-And-Rail Block - “Blackpool”

 

Before we left Mokso Sakan to move eastwards over the difficult mountain range to Pinbaw, I held an Eve-of-Battle service, for we all knew that we were to put down a road-and-rail block in this valley, in place of the White City Block at mawlu, which had been given up. At the close of the service I had a short Com­munion Service t which I invited any members of the Christian Church. One of our best Sergeants came up and asked if he might receive Communion. He was not a communicant, and I had the privilege and pleasure of admitting him there and then to full Communion. How glad I was that I did this, for he lost his life a few days later in the battle.

 

The journey over the hills was a difficult one, especially as we met some opposition on the hill-top from a Japanese patrol. Moving down into the valley we ran into thick bamboo country, through which it sometimes took a whole day to move a couple of miles. Eventu­ally, however, we reached the valley opposite the little village of Namkwin. We harboured for the night in pouring rain, and having moved down in the early morning to a chaung near the hill which we were to occupy, we were sitting wait­ing for the word “go”. The strain was ter­rific; hour after hour passed while the Brigadier did his recce; our nerves were taut like violin strings. We knew to expect trouble and plenty of it. I had gone along the bank of the chaung with another officer to swop the cigarettes in my ration for chocolate, and on the way back stopped for a chat with the CSM. Suddenly there was a loud cry, “Look out” and everyone began rushing towards me along the bank. I turned to run with them in the same direction, tripped over a log and fell with about half a dozen people on top of me. There was a terrific bang - a grenade had gone off by mistake in the middle of HQ group. Several officers escaped as by a miracle, but one rifleman was killed and two officers and riflemen wounded. Naturally we were all rather shaken, and were glad when the order came to move came at length. We filed through the jun­gle, across a field, along a deep rocky ravine, through thick elephant grass, and finally after many delays, up a steep hill­side, to find ourselves on a hill some 100ff high, directly overlooking the rail­way station and village of Namkwin, which lay in the evening sunshine across some wide paddy fields in the middle of the valley.

 

The valley there is about three miles wide, running due north and south, and on both sides there are hills covered with forest. The bed of the valley, however, is mostly open paddy field, with small clumps of trees and shrubbery. In the railway station we could see several wagons, and red station buildings. To the north and south of our hill two large chaungs flowed down to join the main river, and formed a wide open strath around our hill.

 

There was a slight scare as we moved into position, a few shots, as from a Japanese LMG, but we hurried up the bank into position, and nothing further happened that night. The hill on which we were placed consisted of sharply defined spurs, interconnected by knife-edged ridges, not unlike an irregularly shaped starfish. Between the crests lay deep gullies with dry rocky nullahs, while a round hillock jutted out in front of the valley, protected by a long, low ridge. The whole hill was later named after the corresponding positions in a cricket field, “the deep,” “silly point,” “ bowler,” “wicket,” etc.

 

In position, we began at once to dig, almost literally with our hands, for as yet there were few picks and shovels. After several hours my batman and I had only got down two feet, and about midnight gave it up, sleeping uneasily on the hill­top in the pale moonlight until dawn.

 

Next morning, however, we were shifted over the back of the hill into softer soil be­neath a large tree, and by the evening when the Japs were expected to attack, we were at least five feet down. Above our trench we levelled out a little plat­form, built a little fire place against the bole of a big tree, and made a little bam­boo basha to shade ourselves from the sun.

 

The next few days were rather fantastic. We were in full view of the enemy on the hilltop, yet he did not molest us, except latterly at night. Soon after dark on the second day the Dakotas came over, dropping tons of wire, food, ammunition, picks, shovels, stores etc. on the airstrip in front of the Block, and all this was gath­ered up and carried about a quarter of a mile up the steep hill within the perime­ter. The paddy fields were levelled out for an airstrip, and heavy coils of wire dis­tributed all over the hill, till the whole hill was wired in, and booby-trapped. There was little sleep for anyone. Everything depended on the speed with which we could get the Block adequately organized for defence. A heavy Jap attack on the airstrip in the early stages would have made the whole position untenable.

 

The Japs did attack after a few days, but not as we had expected from the hills to the west. About a company of them attacked at night , on the north-east cor­ner, known as the “deep”, infiltrating through thick elephant grass and bamboo across the chaung, They were apparently a detachment from the 18th Div at Mogaung, and they attacked each night straight into a Bren gun position, piling themselves on the single wire in front of it. It was fortunate for us that they did so, as nearly everybody else was down at the airstrip in front of the Block, collecting the air drop. A heavy attack between our LMG position, and they would have been inside the perimeter. They attacked at he same spot in the same way for the next four nights, finally digging themselves in so close to the wire and our position that it was impossi­ble to mortar them without risking mortaring our own position.

 

Across the chaung in their trenches they were bombed, strafed, mortared almost without respite, and finally a Mitchell bomber came over and dropped para­chute landmines on their positions on the hill behind, so that they cleared off.

 

Meantime the work of manning the Block had progressed greatly. All the mules were sent back safely over the hills, and reinforcements from Broadway arrived. After ~some unfortunate delays the gliders finally arrived with the bulldozer and leveller. The -DCs towed them in at dawn, circling round the valley in front of us. The gliders were released and floated gently down towards the airstrip. Suddenly light arms fire broke out from Namkwin village and station, and to our horror one glider crashed straight into a paddy field, another landed safely but suddenly veered off the strip and crashed, and the others did belly landings on the strip or near it. We mortared the village and sent out a fight­ing patrol, but the Japs had gone. Two of the American glider pilots were killed, and others badly hurt. The bulldozer, however, came cheerfully trundling out of the nose of one of the wrecked gliders, apparently none the worse, but the lev­eller and graders were badly damaged, and we were held up for two or three days waiting for new ones.

 

Still the uneasy quiet continued., All day long the bulldozer rumbled up and down the airstrip in front, and men wandered all over the field collecting stores. Inside the Block we lit our fires by day and made tea, and were able to move about unhin­dered in full view of the valley beneath. At night the Japanese train moved up to the station, tooted its whistle, and then moved on. 

 

Finally the DC strip was ready, and one night the first Dakota landed, a great achievement for the REs and the RAF. Up to this point “Blackpool” had however achieved nothing, for without the 25 pounders we could block neither the road or the railway from the hill. The mortars could barely reach it, and it was beyond useful range of the MMGs. Four 25 pounders arrived and several ack-ack guns, and after stalwart work by our Blackpool jeep, which came with them, they were in position. We were gravely handicapped, however, by the lack of adequate floater Columns, as the Brigade due to come to our assistance was still many miles distant. Without their help we could not both defend the Block and control the position in the surrounding jungle.

 

Some odd memories of those early quieter days in Blackpool survive. Near Pilebu we captured a little black pony with a long tail and a long face. Cpl Norberry adopted it, named it Tojo, and made it 26th Column mascot. Each day it went down to the stream and carried several chaguls of water for the RAP. In our own trench we had no excitement, except one night when there was a rumour that Japs were likely to attack on our corner, and a platoon from an English Regiment came in to defend it. The Corporal was distinctly jumpy and after an hour of peering into the dark bamboo and listening only to crickets, he thought he heard something, and hurled a grenade at it. Within a minute, forty other grenades were hurled from neighbouring positions, and a regular mock battle ensued, stopped only by the CSM at the risk of his own life, who came to tell our men to stop firing. Came the dawn - no Japs, dead or alive, were found beneath in the gully!

 

After about ten days the Japs began to at­tack in earnest. One evening the first shell landed with a resounding boom on the airstrip, and within half an hour the damaged and landlocked Dakotas were reduced to rubble. Next morning the Block itself was heavily shelled, and this continued with increasing severity every morning and evening. The airstrip became totally unusable, and we were driven inside the wire.

 

The main attack began on the south east corner of the Bloc, and it fell to our men to defend the most dangerous part. I remember the night when they took over. Colonel “Breezy” Brennan went to do a recce of the position in the afternoon. It was during this time that a shell scored a direct hit on a corner of the trench in which he was sheltering with Lt Tug Wilson and Sgt John. Poor Wilson was killed outright, John slightly wounded and Breezy heavily shaken but unhurt. As a Column Commander he proved his courage that night. 

 

Although we fully expected a heavy attack at nightfall, he did not falter, but completed the difficult business of changing over platoons with the King’s Own in the dark without a hitch.

 

Thereafter the weather began to deteriorate, and although we got some reinforcements across the valley from Broadway our position became gradually untenable. During those days I had the privilege each evening at the end of the Column Orders of having prayers with the Officers and Sergeants, and I think we all felt the reality and need of these brief acts of worship. 

 

One of the more “amusing” aspects of life in the Block was the persistence with which the Jocks continued ‘drumming-up”.

 

The Japs shelled the Block every morning at first light, and for a couple of hours shells and mortar bombs fell al­most continuously all over it, while we cowered down in our slit trenches. Our gunners got much the worst of this, as they were exposed to enemy fire and observation, and one by one the posts were demolished. Our forward RAP was also in a dangerous spot and the MO, Doc Taylor, deserved the greatest praise. For the rest of us, however, apart from the chance of an unlucky hit, the shelling was comparatively harmless, though un­pleasant.

 

The Japs usually stopped for “breakfast” at about 8 am and thereafter as by magic the Jocks crept from their holes and lit dozens of fires all over the Block. It was only towards the end that Jap gunners began using a “whizz-bang” gun whose shell and sound arrived almost simultaneously, thus spoiling our pleasure in drumming-up. Other wise we had plenty of time to count fifteen after the distant boom of the gun, and to jump into the nearest slit trench before the shell arrived.

 

During the last week we had to depend entirely on supplies dropped to us inside the Block by the RAF. They did this by fly­ing very low over the Block for accurate dropping, an act of the greatest courage, which they performed under heavy enemy fire with their usual fidelity and skill.

 

The evacuation of Blackpool is not easily forgotten. Literally we had to run for it in the end, our Column acting as rear-guard; yet almost everyone got away, even the most seriously wounded, for the Japs by a miracle left us with a way of escape. The order to clear out came early on 25th May, when the enemy had broken right through the perimeter wire into the Block itself during the night in strength. The only way out lay north­wards across a wide open field, and then up the Namkwin chaung, a broad stream flowing swiftly knee-deep. Fortunately most of us got across the field before the Jap machine guns opened up.

 

All day long a weary stream of men struggled and straggled up the bed of the stream, wading in and out of the water as the path crossed and re-crossed it. First the wounded, mostly walking, hobbling, even crawling along; a few bad cases were on bamboo stretchers; many in rags, some completely naked. There were many heroes amongst them; men walking in constant agony, with severe chest wounds, broken arms, wounded legs and feet. On and on they went in the pouring rain, and on we herded them, for it was all we could do - on to the moun­tain where safety lay from the enemy whose pursuit we hourly expected. But no Japs came. Soon the rearguard made upon us, and by dusk we had put several miles between us and the Block.

 

By night we harboured in the green leech-infested jungle beside the stream. It rained all night, but we were thankful to be undisturbed. Next day we pushed on up a cruel slippery hill path, and by night­fall had reached another deep ravine, where we set up a temporary FDS, for the sick and wounded. By this time we had linked up with some West Africans, who gave us much help and protection. They built steps for miles up hillside, shared out their rations with us and built little bashas of bamboo, thatched with plantain leaves for the wounded. By nightfall most of the casualties had made up on us, had been given a hot cup of tea, and been dressed or doped by the doctors.

 

Unfortunately we were very short of medical supplies. But as night fell it began to rain. Soon there was a tropical thunderstorm followed by heavy rain all night long. Sleep was impossible, and my batman and I sat huddled together beneath a torn gas cape, shivering and groaning occasionally to re­lieve our feelings.

 

At first light I staggered thankfully to my feet and looked down the slopes to the rocky platform on which the FDS was perched. The rain was still pouring down pitilessly;’ the 4rail bashas had all collapsed among the wreckage , half cov­ered by leave% and sodden blankets, muddy and motionless, lay the wounded. Fires and a hot meal were im­possible. We drove them into motion; on, on, up and over the mountain range, to rest and food and safety.

 

We forgathered again at Mokso Sakan on the far side of the ridge, and heard many wonderful tales of escape through the hills, It was clear that although we had many casualties ourselves in the Block, we had inflicted much heavier casualties on the Japanese who were attacking it. Blackpool, although unsuccessful as an attempt to block the road and railway, had engaged the whole attention of a Japanese Regiment for over ten days, and thus prevented it from giving much needed reinforcement to its forward troops at Imphal and Mogaung.

 

Many of the men had been badly wounded and had suffered from thebexposure, and a kind of miniature field hospital was set up in various houses and monasteries around the lake. My batman and I established a kind of half­way house “Stage Door Canteen” between Mokso Sakan and the jetty at Hepu, and dished out tea to those who were trekking down to the lake. One of the most exciting memories of that period is the landing of “Maggie” the Sutherland Flying Boat to evacuate our casualties.  She made a very dangerous and hazardous journey from the coast over the hills to land on our lake and evacuate the sick and wounded. It was a most gallant and successful operation, and I shall never forget the thrill as I sat on Schweedaung Hill at the north end of the lake and saw her circling majestically round it to make a perfect landing, leaving a white wake of foam behind her.

 

She took 40 casualties out on every trip. Finally, a personal memory, landing by light plane myself at Warazup after a thrilling journey through a thunderstorm and low mists. My old enemy, dysentery, had caught up with me again, and I had to leave the column, regretfully, about a fortnight before they themselves were flown out.

 

It was some time before I met the Battalion again, as I had several weeks in hospital., but when I did I found that they had finished the campaign as gallantly and successfully as they had begun it, taking part in the successful onslaught on Moguang which the Japs defended with suicidal courage.

 

Looking back so long after, I can only say that though I myself felt that I done very little for the men and their officers. I counted it a very great privilige and honour to have been with them. The Cameronians have many battle honours and a great history behind them, but the campaign of the 1St Battalion in Burma will have an honourable place amongst them. For those of us who took part, it was an unforgettable experience. Few of us would care to repeat it, but none of would want to have missed it.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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