Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

The Story of How Two Families Left Burma as the Japanese Advanced

What follows is an account of two families’ departure from Burma when the Japanese invaded in 1942 which Ann P Birch of Tidworth, Hants thought we might like to have in the archives.

 

This was written for Ann by her mother Mrs Mary (Mollie) Birch many years ago, so that Ann would know what she had been through in her early years.  Ann thought that the account should not be lost.

 

Ann, dear,

 

Until December 1941 ‘war’ was just a word to us British people living in Burma. From 1939, when England declared war, we had followed it with the help of letters from home and the radio. Many times I wished your grandparents and uncles were with us in what we thought was a safe place. Germany was a long way from us; we knew they couldn’t reach us. At this time we were living in Maymyo, a small garrison town in Upper Burma, a pretty place with hills, lakes and gardens. The shopping area was small, only one British shop, but by hunting around in the bazaar you could buy most things. Fruit, vegetables and flowers were plentiful. The Garrison, a Cantonment, was about two miles from the town centre. The married quarters were modern bungalows, about sixty of them placed in a semi circle with two in the centre, we lived in one of these. Except for the worry of our folks at home, life at that time was really great.

 

It was September 1941, when things began to change. The men in the regiment of the KOYLI were issued with various things, which had to be always ‘at the ready’. I cannot remember all the things, but I do know they had a small kit-bag packed with jungle kit, tin hat, identity disc, mug plate etc and that they had to carry their rifle at all times. When a certain bugle call was heard you would see the men running with their ‘goods’ to the parade ground. Several times they went off in a train, returning the next day, or the day after, no special time away, it was a case of ‘expect them when you see them’ after the bugle call.

 

Between the 12th & 29th September 1941, your Daddy was Orderly Officer, one of his duties being to inspect the guard during the night. This particular time he decided to do so at 4am, usually he would be away about half an hour, I always had a cup of tea ready for his return. I was in the kitchen wait­ing for the kettle to boil, when back he came, telling me he could not stop, they were off again, took his kit-bag and he was away. Soon after this the bugle sounded. We all thought they would be back in a day or two. It was July 1942 before we met again. For weeks we hoped they would be home ‘tomorrow’, until we were told they would be away for an indefinite time. Mail was regular, the men, of course, could not say where they were. It was months later when we heard they were in the Burmese jungle.

 

December 1941, Japan declared war, we knew that there was trouble ahead and that ‘war’ would cease to be just a word but a reality. It was December 1941 when Pearl Harbour was bombed, also Rangoon. Hong Kong had to surrender and Malaya was also being attacked. All over Maymyo air-raid trenches were being dug, air-raid sirens were heard many times as a practice.

 

We were allocated places in a trench not too far from our bungalow, of course, when the siren went our orders were to get to the trench as quickly as possible. Ann, you were two and a half, so you and I made a game of it because I knew it would be quicker for you to run on your own and me to follow than to carry you. If the Bearer or Ayah were near they would take you to the trench, if not, as soon as the siren sounded, you would be away, by the time I arrived you were so excited and always greeted me with Mummy, I was first.

 

Early in January 1942, the Gloucester Regiment families, who were stationed at Mingladon near Rangoon, were evacuated to Maymyo, we were asked to share our homes with them, a Mrs O’NieI and her three year old daughter Jill came to live with us. We agreed very well for the few weeks we were together. Black out was introduced, because now the siren really did mean an air-raid. Several times a day, day after day, the Japanese planes flew over, dropping bombs onIy once. Little damage was done but it caused havoc with the Burmese and Indians, they disappeared into the jungle for days. Shops were just left open, there was of course a lot of looting. Food became very short, fortunately most of us had well stocked larders. I had a gem of a bearer, if he heard of an open shop, off he would cycle to buy whatever he thought I would need; bread was the most difficult to get. I remember being in the town, near the bakers shortly after the ‘All Clear’. I went back to the shop, the Baker and his staff had gone, people were helping themselves to bread and cakes. I did so want a loaf, all I had at home were a few slices of very stale bread. I was so tempted to help myself, it was the nearest I have ever been to becoming a thief. I waited, hoping the baker would return so that I could buy one from him. The bread had gone, and so had I, before he returned. When I arrived home, there was Anthony, the bearer, with two loaves, no doubt he had stolen them but I paid for them. It became harder to get food. The raids were more frequent. A census was taken of all the families, my form was brought back -  Had I made a mistake? I certainly had. I had stated I was married in 1939 and you were born in 1937!!

 

The Japanese had a habit of raiding us at meal times so we started having breakfast and lunch at about 10.30 and calling it ‘brunch’. One brunch time early in February, Mrs O’Neil and I, in fact all the families, had a notice telling us we had to be ready to leave our home by two o’clock. We were to be evacuated. I was allowed to take 44 lbs weight for us two, it had to include food for four days, mosquito net, pillow, blanket and strong walking shoes. It is very difficult to describe my feelings. We had a very nice home, we had bought all our furniture, because in those days army furniture was dreadful, this was also our first home together, we really did take pride in it. Just pause for a moment, look around your home and

 

imagine how you would feel at leaving so much, believe me the smallest thing becomes a treasure. A week before we had this notice several of our families had left to hike to India, we thought we were on a hike. I had visions of you and I gradually falling behind the British party, they getting further and further away, the Japanese getting nearer with you and I between. However I did not have time to worry about that. I had to get packing.

 

At 1.30 pm I had another notice, to tell me not to leave at 2 am to await further instructions. It had all been decided that owing to my affliction, to fly us out of Burma with the expectant mums. Mrs O’Neil and Jill went off in army lorries at about 2 o’-clock. My bearer, Ayah and houseboy asked if they could go; they were heading for India. I was sorry to say goodbye.

 

I felt so alone, all the houses were empty, or most of them, the place seemed dead. I dare not leave the house to see who else was left in case someone came with another notice. I did see another lady and her children in the distance. I waited and waited, had tea, around 8 o’clock you were so tired I put you to bed - dressed. Still I waited, listening to the dreadful news on the wireless, Malaya and Singapore had fallen, Rangoon and Mandalay in flames, nothing cheerful or hopeful. I felt sure the Japanese would be in Maymyo soon and decided, Ann, they would not have you. I decided I would drown you in the bath. I have often wondered if I could have done such a dreadful thing.

 

Sometime later I heard footsteps on the veranda and someone trying the front door and I was terrified until I heard a Yorkshire voice asking, Anyone at home? . It was CSM Birdsall and a corporal. Norman Birdsall greeted me with What the !!!!! are you doing here? . I told him my story and learnt that the expectant mums had left at 4 o’clock, he was surprised that I had seen his wife late in the afternoon. He told me not to leave the house, as he would be back for us. It seems he and the corporal had been to Mandalay taking rations to the fighting troops, he had been told his wife and children were flying out with the ‘mums to be’, because she had difficulty walking, he had taken it for granted that they had gone. When they arrived back from Mandalay they decided to visit all quarters to check that all doors and windows were locked. Lucky for us they did!

 

It was not very long before they were back with a box gharry, a dreadful thing, in normal times Europeans were not allowed to ride in them. It was a square box on four wheels with a horse that was skin and bone and was driven by the corporal. The men had seen the gharry near the Sergeants’ Mess, as there was no-one near they drove it away. You and I, Ann, squeezed inside with Mrs Birdsall and her children, Joyce 12, Raymond 11 and Lorna 5, also inside were all our ‘worldly goods’. Our goods, tied in a blanket, apart from food were two dresses and pants for you (you were wearing blouse, slacks and cardigan) a set of undies, one dress and one surgical shoe for me and for some unknown reason, your baby potty. On our way to the sta­tion Norman told us that the ‘Walking Party’, the 2 o’clock Party and the expectant mums flight were organized evacuations, we must have been forgotten and must fend for ourselves. We must get as far away from Maymyo as fast as we possibly could.

 

Eventually we reached Maymyo railway station, here the place was packed with Burmese, Indians and Chinese with their goods, anything they could carry; we seemed to be the only Europeans. The noise was dreadful, everyone shouting. At last a train arrived, now it was murder, so much pushing, our escorts found seats for us and at 1.15 am we were away.

 

What a journey!! We were in a 3rd class compartment (never used by Europeans) the seats and back-rest, were wooden lathes. We had a bench affair which seated five, so Mary Birdsall had Lorna on her knee, I nursed you, Joyce, Raymond and our bundles between us. We were packed like sardines, all the seats were full and every inch of the floor covered with people squatting. The windows were blocked by people hanging from the outside, there were no fans or toilets. Your potty came in useful for you children, Mary and I were uncomfortable but managed to control ourselves ‘Pukka­Mem-Sahibs’, some of our fellow passengers were not at all particular!!!!

 

At 2 pm the next day, after 13 hours on the train we were more than pleased to leave it, we were hot, hungry, thirsty, dirty and dying to ‘spend a penny’. We did not know where we were, it was only a small station, packed of course because everyone was getting off the train. Suddenly we saw a notice ‘White Gents Only’ and as we could not see a ‘Ladies’ we sent Raymond in to see if it was clear. It was. What a relief! We were all busy at various jobs, washing etc when in walked a fellow in the RAE He was as surprised to see us as we were pleased to see him. There we were in the ‘Gents’ telling him our tale of woe, he said if we could wait a few minutes he might be able to help - it was then we woke up to why he was there. He had heard of an evacuee camp a few miles away and offered to take us there in his three-tonner.  We had to sit in the back out of sight because he was not allowed to carry anything but rations. After a lot of pushing and pulling, we and our bundles were in the back of the truck and away. We were about two hours driving, during which time we drank orange juice and ate biscuits. You children thought it great fun. We arrived at a disused airfield, which had been opened up as an evacuee camp by voluntary workers, at a place called Shwebo. We said goodbye and thanks to our kind friend and made our way to a building marked ‘Office’.

 

We were told there were about 200 people in the camp, no Europeans. Many hundreds had passed through, this was evident by all the things that had been dumped. The dumping ground was a special part of the camp that had been wired off for that purpose, there was everything in it, mostly bedding and clothing. Nearby a place for the cars, all neatly parked, dozens and dozens, just left there. For weeks people had been leaving Burma, driving to Shwebo with as much as they could pack into their cars, waiting for the planes, only to find they had to leave most of their belongings at the airfield. There was also a hangar packed with bags of mail. Having reported to the office, we were given three tickets and told to go and find three beds, we did in the first building we came to. I thought aIl 200 people were in this long narrow room, they weren’t, there was another similar building near by. Everyone seemed to be lying or sitting just waiting.

 

We had been told we could get tea and smash potatoes at the kitchen, off we went with tins of soup, meat, fruit and cream, at the kitchen we were given a plate, mug, knife, fork and spoon. There were many tables and forms around the camp, when the food was ready we went and sat at one of these and enjoyed our meal because we were so hungry. We walked around the camp, just to see ‘what was what’. We left our bundles on our beds because we had noticed that most beds had a bundle on them, however when we returned my bundle had been put on one of the other beds also my ticket. The lady who was lying on what I thought was my bed said it was hers and had been for three nights. We decided to put the beds together. We put you four children in them and Mary and I slept on the floor either side but it was only for the one night. It was while we were sorting ourselves out that we found someone had stolen from our bundles. My one and only clean dress and undies were missing and one of your dresses, Ann. Mary also lost several items of clothing. I was now left with what I was wearing plus one shoe and you had one dress and two pairs of pants. This was bad enough, but when we found that the food had been taken we felt that it was a really mean thing to do. I now had soup, cheese biscuits, milk and four bars of chocolate, certainly not enough for two of us for four days, a lot of Mary’s food had also been stolen. No-one had seen anyone near our beds, there was nothing we could do about it except pool what food was left, tightening our belts and hope that we wouldn’t be at the camp for too long. We didn’t know where we were going, just hoped a plane would arrive to take us -

 

anywhere. We were there for ten long days. There was not much to do except to wander around the camp, queue for the toilet and for a wash. The toilets were dreadful, just a tent, inside just trenches. The bathroom, another tent with a few pipes coming out of the ground, from the tap on the top a trickle of water falling into a bucket, you had to wait ages to get enough water to wash hands and face.

 

We had several air-raid alarms, the planes were always very high, they took no notice of us, flew on, just as well as there were no shelters or trenches. One afternoon we were strolling around when the alarm sounded, we decided to make towards a clump of trees, once again we could see the planes as specks in the sky when suddenly from no-where, so it seemed, came a plane flying low shooting a machine gun, right across the camp. We threw ourselves to the ground, I laid over you Ann, this you did not approve of, you really did yell. The plane had gone, I was just about to get up when I noticed a young RAF fellow crawling towards us, telling me to stay put as the plane would be back, he was right, and the plane was back before he re-joined his fellow fighters. I did suggest to this fellow that he made his way to the trees, he wouldn’t, he stayed with us  - you Ann protected by the both of us. I felt sorry for this man because he had lost both his parents in a bombing raid in England.

 

Each day there was a list of names on the notice board of those who would leave on the next plane that arrived. The planes came at any old time, it was a case of when the plane landed, those concerned made their way to it and were away very quickly. On the eighth day our names were on the list. All day we waited, but instead of a plane coming to take us away, we were given the grim news that Burma had capitulated; the Japanese had taken over. I cannot explain how we felt, we were also told that there was little hope of any more planes coming, if they did they might be intercepted on the way out. We had to decide if we wanted to return to our homes or stay there and hope for the best. Many people left the camp, we were the only Europeans left and very few others remained. It was difficult to know what to do, Mary and I talked about it for ages. We were hungry, thirsty and dirty, food and water was scarce, in fact, neither Mary nor I had eaten for three days or drunk for two. You children had a little, it was awful to hear you ask for food Mummy I’m hungry. We would put you off for as long as we could and then try to make a little go a long way.

 

We had somehow or another managed to contact an old man who used to pass the camp, with signs and our limited knowledge of his language we made him understand that we  wanted food. Most days he would bring bits and pieces, perhaps two or three eggs (these were always scrambled by us as they were easier to divide between you children), tomatoes, mangoes and the most dreadful looking stale bread. We, of course, had to barter for it, even so we paid high prices, but we were glad of it.

 

After many discussions we, that is Mary and I, decided to stay at the camp, if the Japanese wanted us they would have to come to us not us go to them, plus we didn’t really know how we would get back to Maymyo.

 

Our tenth day at camp was much the same as the previous ones, except for the last four nights we had a bed each. We watched and prayed for a plane to come at the same time expecting the Japanese to appear. Early in the evening a plane arrived, it was not very long before we were on it. Before we boarded our ‘baggage’ was searched we had to throw away anything we didn’t really need, all I had was a blanket, mosquito net, towel and potty and shoe. I was told to throw away my shoe, an odd shoe was not important - it was to me -however, I had to leave it there on the ground. Imagine my surprise when, high in the sky, Mary produced it from under her cardigan, when the searcher looked away she had picked it up.

 

I have no idea what kind of plane we were in, but there was a sort of tin looking bench around the inside with dents in it, on which we sat, it was quite comfortable. Before we took off, we were told to hang on to the strap above our heads and put our fingers in our ears. How on earth we were expected to do that I don’t know, plus the fact I had you, Ann, on my lap.

 

After a while Raymond decided to walk to the front of the plane, he came back with the news that the pilot was a Japanese. It was not very long before a man came from the front of the plane, gave each of us a paper bag, in case we were sick - much to our joy he was Chinese. We asked where we were going, all he did was grin, I guess he did not understand . We were about two hours flying, the lady sat facing me had her eyes closed most of the time with her paper bag ‘at the ready’. I remember all her fingers seemed to be covered with rings. Just as I was thinking of taking you back on to my lap ready for coming down the ‘ring lady’ was sick, missed the bag and delivered the lot on my one and only dress. She was sorry and so was I. I cleaned it as best I could, it did not really matter because by now we were all smelly, not having washed properly for twelve days, plus the fact I hadn’t changed my clothes, in fact I hadn’t taken them off, all those days. We arrived at Chittagong and were met by two men with a truck. It was dark and we couldn’t see anything as we were driven away, but when we stopped we were looking at a ball­room scene. All the people in evening dress, the ladies in long flowing robes of every colour dancing to music - soft, but clear. It was the Chittagong Social Golf Club Dinner Dance. They had heard evacuees were expected, had arranged for us to be taken to the club and to be given their dinner. As soon as we appeared the music stopped and everyone looked our way, we must have looked a very sorry site, talk about chalk and cheese, here we were about thirty, dirty, smelly women and children - they immaculate. Much to my surprise I heard There’s Molly Birch, it was a lady who had been on the SS Mulberia four years earlier when I was going out to Burma. In no time at all we were given cups of coffee and you children milk. It had been arranged that each lady would adopt a woman or child whilst the men arranged transport for us. The lady from the Mulberia adopted me and another lady you. We were taken to a cloakroom where we could have a really good wash. The next time I saw you, Ann, you had a shiny face (first time for days) and a clean dress. We were taken to the dining room where the table was beautifully laid. We were advised by a doctor not to eat to much, as we were not used to full-meals I know I had soup and sponge pudding. I don’t know what you had as your ‘friend’ was attending to you. It was really a strange sight; ladies beautifully dressed feeding babies and toddlers who were none to clean. I am sure there must have been more than one dress ruined that evening.

 

Soon we were on our way again, this time in super cars, to the station where we were put into a four-berth compartment. Now we were comfortable, with full tummies and fairly clean, with four wide berths and a toilet between the six of us. So with Joyce and Raymond in the upper berths, Mary and Lorna in one lower berth and you and I in the other, we settled down for a good sleep in spite of the fact that we realised we had not asked where the train was taking us. I know it was about midnight when we settled down, it was not long before we woke up , the train had stopped, not at a station, but everyone was getting off the train. We were told there was trouble on the line, the train could go no further and all we could do was to follow the crowd, and there was certainly a crowd. To our surprise everyone was walking towards the back of the train, the way we had just travelled. It’s no fun walking along a railway line in the dark.

 

I have no idea how far, or for how long we walked, but I know I had had more than enough when, still with the crowd, we came off the rails on to a path which led down a hill, there at the bottom was water and boats. I don’t know the difference between a boat and a ship, anyway it was a sailing vessel. It had one large wooden deck in the centre, a hut with two men inside, who I suppose were the ‘drivers’, each side of the boat were two huge wheels which turned as we sailed, I suppose it was a paddle steamer.

 

When it was daylight we saw several boats nearby, they looked as packed as we were, you had two choices, standing or squatting, but where you were, there you stayed. We moved away very slowly and once again we did not know where we were going. To me it seemed a very wide river because most of the time, although we could see land on either side it was in the far distance. It was not a bad trip, a beautiful day, we were in the fresh air, ate biscuits and choco­late and drank from bottles of water given to us at the club.

 

Late afternoon we arrived at a shaky jetty, which was at the foot of a high bank, everyone scrambled up so we had to do the same. Mary helped you Ann, Joyce and Raymond helped Lorna and I followed with my bundle. When we reached the top we saw the railway line stretching for miles either side of us, like everyone else we sat down for what we thought was a rest. There were many people but we could not see any other Europeans. We sat there for a long time, in fact we had reached the stage when we wanted to be on the move again but did not dare to be the first to move. We had decided to stay with the crowd, as there was safety in numbers and wait and see what would come along. Suddenly we heard the noise of a train coming, when everyone jumped up and stood on the lines waving and shouting. As it was now getting dusk I hoped the train would stop, it did. Mary and Raymond hurried with the crowd to meet it, we four followed, after a lot of pushing and shoving we were all on the train, so was everyone else. It is surprising how high a railway carriage is when away from the platform. When the train was slowing down Mary had lifted Raymond to it and he had reserved that carriage for us, stood guard at the door. It was a two berth compartment with a toilet, which was great, your potty had worked overtime on the boat, but Mary and I visited the toilet in spite of the fact it was not moving - well it was not a station.

 

Later, after more biscuits and water we settled down to sleep, Lorna and Raymond sharing the top bunk, Mary and you in the lower, Joyce in a chair, me on the floor with my bundle as a pillow and believe me we all slept soundly. The next day, every time the train stopped we looked for the name of the station; we also bought more biscuits, chocolate and fruit. Early evening we arrived at Calcutta station, where we decided to leave the train. We went to a Military Policeman who escorted us to the Railway Transport Officer who in his turn sent us away in staff cars to Fort William. We had been wondering how we would get past the ticket collector because we had travelled from Burma to India by train, plane, boat and train and train again without tickets.

 

Fort William was a Garrison Town on the outskirts of Calcutta, surrounded by a high wall. I understand it was built as a fortress, in case of riots, the British families would be safe in there with the gates closed and guarded. Once again we had to report to an office where we were told they were over-crowded with refugees, there was not a bed to spare but they would see what they could do. We would be all right the following night as the next day many people would be moving on to other places in India. First of all we were given a light meal and then taken to a barrack block, which was certainly crowded. We were taken into a large room; there was one single bed. At one end lay a very old lady and at the other end a young lady with her four-day-old baby. The floor was covered with women and children, there did not appear to be room for any one else. Our escort moved a few closer together and there was a place for me to sit in a corner which was lucky because I could rest against the wall. So with you on my lap we spent our first night in Calcutta, not comfortable, but nice to be with British people again. Mary and her family were on the floor in another room.

 

Next morning after breakfast several coaches took lots of people away. I was allocated a room on the second floor with two beds, two chairs and best of all a shower and toilet. Mary was next door with four beds and four chairs. We were the only people on the second floor and as there was a verandah the whole length of the building there was plenty of room for you to play. We bought washing powder from a small NAAFI and washed our clothes. I had nothing to change into so I had to do my washing in bits and pieces, first bra and pants (they didn’t take long to dry, it was so hot), next my petticoat, then after lunch, when it was decided everyone to their beds, I washed my dirty smelly dress. By the time we had our evening meal, all of us had washed our hair, had a shower and were dressed in clean, if not ironed, clothes, I don’t think I ever felt so good.

 

During the night Ann you were taken ill, long before the doctor arrived the next morning I knew you had dysentery. The doctor said you had to go into hospital. When I explained we had only one towel between us and you did not have a nightdress he gave me a pass to leave the fort, provided me with a jeep and driver and instructions to go to a certain shop - nowhere else. Eventually you were in hospital, clean, in a nightie and in a clean comfy bed, the first time for over three weeks.

 

Daily coach loads of evacuees left the fort, on the third day Mary and her family left for the Murrey Hills, I was so very sorry to see them go. I spent as much time as I could in the hospital, it was being on my own on the second floor I did not like, so asked the officer in charge if I could have a room on the ground floor. All the evacuees were well looked after regarding meals. The first meal on my own, in what at other times had been a full dining room, was very strange, the four soldiers who were on duty as cook and waiters were still on duty just for me. After my lonely meal it was suggested that, if I wished, I could have my meals in a smaller room with the staff. This I was only to pleased to-do. The staff, two cooks and six waiters, slept in the room next to mine so I felt safe at night in spite of the fact it did not have a lock on the door. The staff were kindness itself to me, lent me an iron and shoe brushes. Every morning there would be a knock on the door and there would be a mug of tea on the step. For the first few days when l visited the hospital, I saw you, but you did not see me. I had to have a pass to leave the fort and was only allowed to go to the hospital, not to town. The hospital was a long way from the fort, so I used to have a taxi most of the time, and sometimes I went by jeep.

 

After a week I was allowed to visit you from 2 pm until 8.30 pm, this I used to do, at the same time rolling bandages for the hospital. I still do not know why I did not ask one of the hospital staff to buy me a set of underclothes and a dress. Every morning I washed my clothes in bits and pieces, now of course I could iron them. I said I washed my clothes every morning, really I started just before going to bed. One night I would sleep in bra and pants, the next night my petticoat, my dress I would was between breakfast and lunch. The only time I was fully clothed was when I left the fort. When our evening meal was finished the staff and I would sit talking until about 1.30 am, waiting for more evacuees to arrive. Several small parties had arrived, but only one stayed the night. Towards the end of my second week there I had gone to bed late, only to be awakened by someone grabbing hold of me. I screamed and pushed with all my strength until I heard “It’s Mollie Birch”. The ‘hiking party’ which had left Maymyo weeks before had arrived, hearing there was a ‘white lady’ in the fort they had come to see who it might be. We were all so pleased to meet again. Now I had my. three friends and their two children for company. The hiking party consisted of twelve families including an Anglo-Indian girl who was deaf and dumb. Next day at breakfast an appeal was made for anyone who could understand the sign language to report to the CO’s office. This I did, because eighteen years before, when I was in a children’s hospital, we were taught the sign alphabet so that we could ‘talk’ to a deaf and dumb child in our ward. The result was that within a few days her parents had been contacted, brought to Calcutta and had taken their daughter home.

 

After three weeks you were out of hospital and a week later we, and our friends, were in a first class compartment of a train on our way to the Simla Hills. My friends, as you know Ann, were Lottie Goldthorpe and her son Keith, Betty Bootland and her son Ian and Lil Butler. Twenty-four hours later we arrived at a small station called Ambala. Here transport was waiting to take us on a two-hour drive, round the hills climbing all the time to a place called Subathu, our journey was over, seven weeks after leaving Maymyo -  a journey that was to have taken four days.

 

I suppose Ann I could end my story, taken from notes written 30 years ago and my memory with the evacuation, but knowing you, if you were here, you would ask “What happened next?”.

 

Sabathu was an army hill station situated in the Simla Hills which had been specially opened for evacuees from Burma, Malaya and Singapore, a very small place but very pretty. On arrival we were given a cuppa in the school, which was now a dining hall and were told to return later for an evening meal and for all meals the next day. We were allocated quarters, Lottie and Betty to share, Lil and I to share, Lil was not well so went to the hospital for a few days.

 

The quarters were 3 blocks of 12 flats, 6 on the ground floor and, of course, 6 above. As I have said Sabathu was a hill station, I can describe the flats as being on shelves. Number 15 was at the top facing the school, number 14 lower down the hill and number 13 much, much lower down again, from 15 to 14 there was a road, but not to 13, not even a path.

 

Lottie and Betty were given a flat in 14 block and I in 13. Although it was hard work getting down to 13, it did not seem too bad. I was given an end quarter on the ground floor - in fact we had the block to ourselves until the early hours of the morning when more evacuees arrived. When it was time to go for our evening meal it was getting dark and we were trying to climb this hill which at times meant getting on all fours. You were tired Ann, you wanted to be carried, how you begged and cried, after all you were only two and a half years old. I tried to carry you but couldn’t, at the same time you did not want to walk. I knew that if we didn’t have a meal we would be hungry by morning, so I had to get tough. I smacked your bottom, not hard, but hard enough to make you scramble up the hill. When you stopped I repeated the treatment until we reached the road. By this time you really were crying and I felt dreadful because all these weeks you had been good in spite of everything, yet on the Iast lap when you asked for help I couldn’t give it to you. When we arrived at the top we sat on the grass and had a little cuddle and a little weep. When we had finished our meal Lottie and Betty came home with us and the next day at meal times one of them came and carried you up that dreadful hill. On the second day we were moved to block 14. Lil Butler joined us a few days later. The flat was very nice, two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, pantry, bathroom and toilet. The verandah ran all round the block like the deck of a ship in fact later 14 Block became known as the ‘Queen Mary’. Everything in the flat was provided by the army, nothing great, but all we needed.

 

Soon we were getting mail from England, the first for four months. We had no idea where our menfolk were, they had no idea what had happened to us. We had been advised to write to GHQ Delhi giving details of ourselves and our husbands. The men when they arrived were also asked to write to this address, that is how we made contact again. Our next problem was money. Most people had a few pounds when they left Burma, if we had known what was facing us we would have taken all from the bank before it was frozen. We had to have clothes and food and even though we looked twice at our money before we spent it, it seemed to go very quickly. My friend’s husbands arrived in India soon after us. Until the men arrived we could not claim our marriage allowance because we could not prove who we were. Lil, Lottie and Betty offered to lend me some money, I refused until I was ‘really broke’. By the time June arrived and I was very short of cash I decided to write home for a loan. The mail to and from England used to take a bit longer in those days and two weeks later I had three rupees, about 7/6 (36p). I was most depressed, it was a Saturday evening, the others had gone to a dance with their husbands and I was baby-sitting Keith and Ian in my bed. I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself when I don’t know why I lost faith in God. Ann I am ashamed to admit this, but I did, I decided I would never go to mass or pray again. When I went to bed I could not sleep because I had deliberately not said my prayers. The next day, Sunday, I missed Mass, the only time I have done so on purpose. I was very unhappy that day, followed by a restless night. Monday mid-day, the postman brought me two letters. One from England, containing an order for £40. At that time, only £10 could be sent out of England by each person, so your grandparents and uncles had sent £10 each. The other letter was from your father containing £100, and in which he told me he was safe and in India. 1 felt very humble and ashamed to think I had turned my back on God. After praying we would arrive somewhere safe and sound, a wish he had granted, at the last hour I had lost faith in him. It taught me a lesson. When you get to the stage when you feel you can’t take anymore, don’t lose faith, pray harder - it will sort itself out in the end. Don’t you get to the stage when you feel you can’t take anymore, Two weeks later your father arrived in Sabathu and after 10 months we were together again. After a month’s leave he was away again. Mrs Butler went home to England and you and I, Ann settled down to a quiet life. We were in Sabathu for four years. Your father visited us as often as he could and we visited him in various places in India, including Calcutta, where he was the Railway Transport Officer, this time we visited Calcutta railway station as the Major’s family - not refugees.

 

With love, Mum.

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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