While I still remember it in early 2005. 60+ years after the events
By Manny Curtis, South Lancashire Regiment
I received my call-up papers in June 1943. The Primary Training Centre (PTC) to which I had to report was at Fulford, York. Don't ask me why - I was living in Roman Road, Bow at the time! I did my basic training with the Rifle Brigade - the same regiment my father had served with during WW1. A new scheme had just been introduced into the call-up procedure to ensure that no square pegs landed up in round holes. This brilliant piece of innovation was called a Personnel Selections Officer. During my interview with him he noted my interest in drawing and painting and proposed I join a Corps rather than a regiment. He even suggested the Royal Engineers where I could take a course of cartography and camouflage which carried the rank of sergeant. That sounded good to me. Then he asked me which branch of the army I would least care to serve with and foolishly I told him the infantry. Fine! So how comes I landed up in the South Lancashire Regiment? In fact it wasn't all that bad and to this day Lancashire remains my favourite English county ... people-wise.
After six weeks in York I was posted to the Infantry Training Centre at Formby, near Liverpool. Then to Sussex, then very briefly to the Orkneys and then for longer duration, to Loughermore, in County Antrim. That wasn't far from Belfast with its Jewish club and tennis courts and where Jewish servicemen were treated like royalty, especially by the family Brown. Then, having just returned from a spot of home leave, I was given a further 14 days embarkation leave. That wasn't bad news as I'd heard a wanger (rumour) that we were to be on an Italian draft. That suited me fine. I'd been to Southend and even Margate, but I’d never been to Italy.
After my leave I reported to Wishaw in Lanarkshire from where we were taken to Greenock, near Glasgow, and put on board the largest ship I had ever seen. And away we went. After some twenty minutes or so, during which time I'd found a convenient niche to spend my time till we reached Italy, the ship stopped. I went up on deck to see what was happening and saw that we had stopped alongside an enormous steel wall. Looking up that steel wall I saw several heads looking down at us. In fact, the ship we were on was merely the ferry having taken us out to the Strathaird, this great monster 24k ton P&O liner.
I well understood the Indian crews' reluctance to tell us how long it would take to get to Italy because security was a big thing in the 1940s. They must all have been briefed to say that we were going to Bombay - and I appreciated that. But when we sailed through Port Said and into the Red Sea I began to have my doubts about ever getting to Italy.
The Stratheden, sister ship of the Strathaird, had been ahead of us and had been torpedoed with a high casualty list . Fortunately we weren't told until we were approaching Bombay.
We then went where millions had gone before us. Deolali ... during the monsoon period!
I quickly copped for a dose of malaria. It was 'clinical'- quite a mild form. The 127 Indian Base General Hospital soon patched me up but then I was hit with the BT strain which took a bit longer to deal with and meant that I'd missed going on jungle training at some hill station with the others. When I finally joined up with the 2nd battalion, it was after a five-day train ride from Bombay to Calcutta, thence to Chittagong and along the Bramaputra and my first ever air trip - over to Nagaland at night followed by a long and hazardous drive over the Naga Hills with the Indian driver singing just to stay awake. We finally joined the battalion at Kohima.in northern Burma The most horrendous and unimaginably fierce close contact battle had very recently taken place there. A battle, it must be said, that changed the whole course of the war in Burma. Human bodies and body parts were everywhere, yet not a sign of flesh - the myriad insects had taken care of that in double quick time - long before there was an opportunity for either side to bury its dead.
For the 2nd battalion the South Lancashire Regiment, Kohima marked the starting point for what turned out to be a 500-mile trek down the length of the country complete with full kit, weapons and a PIAT (projectile infantry anti-tank) spring. No PIAT, just the spring! We dare not dump it - it was 'on our strength'. So who do you think the honour of carrying it was bestowed upon? Yes, yours truly. Our transport was a pack of mules led by Indian muleteers. They carried the heavy stuff like ammunition, water panniers and suchlike, but not a 10 pound PIAT spring! On that long march we constantly buried anything we didn't need, such as cutting a pencil in half and disposing of the unnecessary half to make our packs that tiny bit lighter, but that rotten spring was ’on our strength’ - so we couldn't get rid of it!
Down through Imphal, over the 'Chocolate Staircase' (so-called because of the deep, sticky mud all over those hill ranges.) through Tamu and Tiddim then finally out of the heavy teak jungle and into the plains of central Burma. Christmas 1944 was celebrated somewhere in the Tamu area. Commissioned officers toasted the occasion in whisky; all other ranks in rum. There was a spot of bother when someone swapped rum for whisky, but the most memorable aspect and the real reason for mentioning that Christmas was a man named Allen - the company cook. We had a camp fire around which we all gathered. Everyone was expected to tell a joke, recite a poem, sing a song – anything - but something.. Allen refused to do anything and in army terms that was suicide. All eyes focused on him and he was finally cajoled into standing up and performing. He sang "I like eggs and bacon, I like eggs and bacon, but if you think I'm going to sing you're f***ing well mistaken!" The house, as they say, fell apart.
Towards the end of January 1945 when we arrived at a town called Pakoku near the banks of the Irrawaddy, I had the great 'pleasure' of developing the next worse strain of malaria - MT. I'd already plodded on through a bout of denghi fever, but in spite of my daily dose of Mepacrin which was meant to protect us from the dreaded mosquito, I still managed to find a mozzie that hadn't read the label. I'd also had foot rot (who hadn't?) . prickly heat, jungle sores, sand fly fever and dysentery. But MT malaria was something apart. I was taken to a local forward 'hospital' which was no more than a small tented area staffed by a wonderful force of volunteer medics. While I was there the ‘hospital’ received a visit from the man himself, General (as he then was) Bill Slim. In preparation the floors were swept. 'Floors' being no more than dried-up mud, imagine the dust! Then came the great man. A Brummie. And he really was a great man. He had all the time in the world for everyone. When he heard I was with the South Lancashire Regiment he was, for some reason, delighted. He suggested that I got back to the battalion as quickly as possible as he had ..."a very special job" for us. I had no say in the matter - I was discharged fit a day or two later. Then came a couple of 'hairy' days spent rejoining the unit. The first night was beside a fighter airstrip watching three Hurricanes coming in to land, quite oblivious to the fourth plane following them in which was Japanese. The intruder dropped two bombs, making a mess of the Hurricanes and leaving a couple of nasty craters along the runway before wheeling off and back from whence he came. Next day I set off early but the battalion was no longer at Pakoku - they'd moved along the west bank opposite a small village called Nyaungu. I arrived very late at night on the 13th February 1945 and was met by Major 'Tommy' Casey, our company commander. He told me that we had been selected as the assault battalion to cross to the enemy-held east side of the river. The code-name for the operation was 'Bechers Brook' and our company (“C” company) had been given the ‘honour’ of being the first across at 03:30, well before first light, to establish a foothold and create a diversion to draw the enemy's fire while the rest of the battalion followed us at dawn. He then showed me some aerial photographs of the local area. The river was at its narrowest at just over a mile wide and facing us was a small beach beside a 100-foot cliff. Cut into the face of that cliff were five or six holes accommodating enemy look-outs. Then he said he would be in the leading boat and I'd be with him together with six or eight others. The boats were canvas and we paddled our way across.
In spite of a moonlit night and five or six sentries (who, to our great relief must have all been fast asleep) the entire company of 200 men crossed safely and unopposed. We landed on the small beach and climbed the steep chaung (a dried-up water course) where it had been pin-pointed on the photos then turned left onto the top of the cliff as planned. There were two corps of enemy in the area. Purely by chance we had landed between the two and there was no immediate opposition. We dug in on the top of the cliff and waited for the light of day and for the rest of our battalion to join us. Major Casey was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership, which was well deserved.
But the dawn brought hell. The rest of the battalion found themselves in deep trouble. Several boats had sprung leaks midstream, others had outboard engines that failed to fire and the river’s strong current carried them downstream and into the sights of the Japanese machine guns. It became a second St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. From our position on top of the cliff there was nothing we could do to help them. Some of us returned to the beach below soon after and recovered two or three bloated bodies from the river.
One single, solitary Japanese fighter plane flew no more than a very few feet directly over my slit trench and one of our lads who had the time to do so took a pot shot at it. He didn’t stop it, but as it flew towards the west bank it was caught up in an artillery box barrage and destroyed. We lost twenty seven good men on that dawn crossing among who was 26-year old Mancunian Alec Cohen who was a company signaller. He had taken a bullet directly through his back via his wireless set. I mention him because, having taken a course in Army Signalling, I was deputed to take over from him – bullet-perforated wireless and all. Can’t remember what happened to that blasted PIAT spring, but it must have been taken over by some other greenhorn when I’d had my bout of MT. But then I then had a much heavier 18 wireless set to lug about.
I don’t recall precisely where or when, but our Jewish personnel received a visit from Army Chaplain, Reverend Lew. We sat and chatted in a vehicle dug-out and it wasn’t difficult to pick out the Chaplain – he was the one replete in immaculate, clean and crispy new Alkit Jungle Greens while the rest of us were in scruff order. The next time I was to meet Reverend Lew was in March 1950 at Shacklewell Lane Synagogue on my wedding day. I had no idea he would be officiating and as we stood chatting away, neither of us noticed my bride standing with us and asking if she should come back next week?
For much of our long march there was no real certainty what day of the week it was – not that it mattered, one day being very much like another. But being on wireless gave me the opportunity of at least knowing when it was Saturday because that was the day I tuned in to the American Forces Network where I listened for the very first time to a young singer with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra by the name of Frank Sinatra.
We had often moved by night with a ten-minute break every hour. It had become a strange sort of war after the river crossing . The enemy had long employed what became known as Jitter Raids. When we struck camp overnight we put up coiled barbed wire around our area. Then tied empty cans to the wire and placed a few pebbles in them so that, should the Japanese creep up on us, the rattling stones would alert us – if our sentries didn’t! But the Japs sent out just two or three men who crept silently to the wire, tied the end of a length of string to it in several places around our site and retreated to a safe distance. Then they would fire the assorted weapons and fire crackers they had and pulled the strings so that it seemed as though we were completely surrounded. We didn’t get much sleep during those Jitter Raids but we did get the Jitters. On one such occasion one of our lads, by the name of Bennett was far too generous with his hand grenades – he was lobbing them over to the stalkers like there was no tomorrow. It so happened that that particular tomorrow was Bennett’s 21st birthday, so we clubbed together and presented him with a whole case of grenades. But Bennett’s proudest moment was earlier when he received a bullet in the heel of his boot placed there by a Japanese when we eventually engaged them at Nyaungu.
Some time after, we were at Chauk where we re-crossed the river to Letse on the west bank of the Irrawaddy. My especial memory of that operation is of a mother elephant with her calf. Mummy was helping assemble parts of a Bailey Bridge but baby wouldn’t leave her side. All we could see of junior was his trunk acting as a snorkel while the rest of his body was totally submerged in the river.. We crossed on floating sections of the bridge and met up with some officers and NCO’s of the East Africans whose unit had just taken a hefty battering at Seikpu and the rank and file had fled, abandoning those officers and NCO’s.( I have to thank Gunner Bert Wilkins for that information). He was on loan to the battalion from the Royal Artillery for much of the way with his supporting 3” mortar which he put to excellent use on many occasions. Like putting down 252 bombs in about fifteen minutes, before being wounded when his company was also ambushed at Seikpu. Bert and I met for the first time sixty years later!
It was when we were at Letse Box that a number of quite separate incidents occurred. Firstly, we had sent out a section patrol – a smallish group. Not too long afterwards there was the sound of gunfire from what seemed to be about half a mile distant. Our patrol had hit trouble. Like an idiot, I broke the most cardinal of infantry rules.- I climbed a nearby hill and stood on the skyline looking to see what was happening. I stood beside a tiny pagoda at the very top of the hill. Suddenly I heard a rifle shot and the pagoda received a bullet hole. I walked round behind the pagoda (to my surprise, quite unfazed). I wonder whether the sniper wasn’t as good a shot as he should have been or did his armourer do a lousy job on his rifle sights? Whichever, I am eternally grateful.
The patrol returned with one wounded corporal and one 36-year old supported by his mates. He used his rifle as a crutch and complained bitterly that “I’m too old for this lark!” The corporal was a tall, handsome man of around 26 and was from the Manchester area. There was an enormous gap where his stomach had once been. I was with the Medical Officer as he tended him. The corporal asked for a drink of water – I looked to the MO who nodded agreement and passed me a swab of cotton wool soaked in water for the man to suck. The dreadful thing was watching as he sucked the water and seeing it dripping straight into the mass of twisted and torn intestines. He died shortly afterwards.
Also at Letse we had a Captain Lewis – on attachment to the battalion from the Welch Regiment. We’d been without water for two or three days and were sucking smooth pebbles to keep our mouths moist. On the 30th March he ‘lost it’ and went stark, staring, raving mad. He too died
A new officer arrived at Letse. He came from East Ham in London and had the most gorblimey Cockney accent imaginable. He was around five feet two and insisted on everyone calling him “Jim”. That kind of familiarity with an officer was counter-productive. It just couldn’t work. Nobody felt comfortable and he was returned from whence he came – pdq! (pretty damn quick). I wonder whatever happened to him?
The monsoon was due shortly and when finally Rangoon was recaptured we were somewhere south of Prome (or it might even been north of the city) when we were put on what was laughingly known as “mopping-up operations”.
There were several pockets of Japanese resistance which meant sending out patrols of varying size and purpose. The Japanese had always been a dangerous and ruthless enemy and nobody was taking prisoners. But one of our company’s patrols did take a prisoner, he was wounded and brought in on a stretcher. When I saw him he was still lying on the stretcher by the side of a deep crevice. He didn’t speak English and I spoke no Japanese, but he showed me a picture of his family. He was only sixteen years old - four years younger than me! I must confess that I did feel sorry for him. I indicated that I would bring him a cup of tea – we were brewing up at the time. When I got back there was no sign of him until I looked down the crevice and saw the stretcher and the boy far down below. I could only surmise who tipped him over. I just don’t know. Nobody saw anybody do it. And that, I suppose is one of the features of war. But looking back from this safe distance in time it is very easy and very safe to sermonise. But who can say with even the smallest degree of certainty that the young boy wouldn’t have done – or may already have done – the same thing to one of ours’? And remembering Kohima and Imphal he could well have been capable – even at his tender age.
There was a small village (possibly towards Pegu) where we were to relieve a West African detachment positioned there. We arrived in the early hours of the morning. I’d been appointed leading scout (a position not as dangerous as it sounds, because the enemy would usually allow the leading scout to pass unharmed so they could assess the strength of the party he was leading). I chose to stand on a large log at the entrance to the area, directing the others in. We then well understood why there was no sentry on duty or any African there to meet or challenge us. The Japs had paid them a visit before we arrived and ‘carnage’ would hardly describe the scene that greeted us. The signaller was still in situ in his camouflaged slit trench with his headphones in place. He had been bayoneted several times. There was not a single person alive to describe what had happened – we could only imagine. The whole area reeked of death. I chose a place finally to grab an hour’s sleep on a grassy bank and when I awoke it became obvious why the stench of death was so powerful where I had been lying. The ‘bush’ that I thought I had been lying beside was barely recognisable as such, but it was a West African. In the morning light I also saw that the log on which I had stood earlier was also a West African. Those who have experienced it will know that the smell of death is one that is not soon forgotten. And that dispelled any lingering doubts I may have had. Yes, I do believe that the young Japanese soldier could well have enjoyed taking part in that blood bath..
Near another small village towards Pegu (was it Magwe? I really can’t remember) there was a Royal Artillery Field Battery being harassed and they sought infantry protection. We were closest to hand and were elected for the job. Their captain explained that the Japanese entrenched on a nearby hill were putting down a heavy barrage every day at 5pm. He showed us the extent of their range so we started digging in on the safe side of the line. Did you ever try digging a slit trench in sandstone? It was coming up to five o’clock and I’d only managed to get down eighteen or so inches when the barrage began. Now, either that artillery officer had been telling porkies or the Japs had moved their guns forward, but we found ourselves well within range of their artillery. It was a fairly heavy bombardment and to this day I can still feel the sandstone raining down on me following a too-darn-close shell explosion. Then, just a few feet to my left I saw our bivouac was on fire. Inside were ammunition boxes, grenades, mortar bombs and the major’s supper – a live chicken who had inadvertently crossed his path. If that lot went up…I hate to think of the consequences. And being the closest to it I’d have been the first to know! Happily I managed to get the ammo clear and said a quick burial prayer for the chicken. I saw an officer’s batman blown high through the air and smashed against a tree. And one of our mules was also blown skywards spilling a pannier of water over us. I believe we got away lightly. We also moved out of range pretty damn quick!
We had to dislodge a company of Japanese from a hill and the sooner the better. But that was easier said than done. We’d tried mortars, we’d tried direct attacks. Major Casey even suggested a bayonet attack. (uphill???). The Japs had a panoramic view of the entire area so there could be no surprise attack. We sent for and received our very first and only air support which came in the shape of six Hurribombers (Hurricane fighters adapted to carry a bomb under each wing).of the Royal Indian Air Force under the command of an RAF liaison officer. He was a very tall, red-haired man with a ginger moustache to match. The plan was simple. First plane dropped his cargo and the second did a dummy run keeping the Japs heads down while our platoon moved forward. This was followed by a bombing run while our lads stayed where they were. Then a dummy run and so on. My wireless was ‘open’ and the RAF officer using my mike to direct the operations. Then came a problem. One of the planes dropped his bombs on what should have been a dummy run. The platoon took casualties as they moved forward. The pilot apologised when he realised his mistake and asked if he should go round again. The liaison officer was livid and let out a stream of expletives that even the Roman Road stallholders wouldn’t have dared use. He ordered the man back to base promising to deal with him later. The plane wheeled away leaving the others to finish the job. All went well and the Japs were cleared giving no further trouble. However, as I was about to close down I accepted a call from a ‘beetle station’ in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). These were usually manned by the Womens’ Royal Naval Service(Wrens) who scanned the airwaves for a variety of reasons, mainly intelligence gathering. A sweet little ‘counties’ voice complained about “the unofficial language” being used over the air and insisting we desist from further use of such language. The RAF man blew his top! He snatched the mike from me and told her in his finest unofficial language that she was interrupting a war and told her what she could do with her (blankety-blank).beetle station. While this was going on our Commanding Officer, Lt Col Mitchell asked me what had happened and when I told him, he took a turn to speak to the poor girl in Kandy, easily topping the RAF man’s vocabulary in a way that would bring a blush to those same stall holders. He gave her more explicit instructions on what she could do with her microphone.
I mention that incident for a very good reason which I shall explain later.
I’d then been in Burma for almost a year and we were at Pegu and close to the pre-war tiger-hunting, bamboo jungle – the Pegu Yomas. There were a number of Japanese groups holed up in there and we were to flush them out. This was while the monsoon was at its wettest and it would be futile to describe just how wet a monsoon can be. It was about then that one of those groups decided to lob a couple of mortars our way and I was the recipient of a tiny fragment of metal splinter in a place I am reminded of when I choose to sit down. Then, one day, a couple of us had wandered out to gather tinder to make a brew. As the water started to boil I was horrified to realise I’d left my rifle out there somewhere. That would have earned me the death penalty in 1916 but only a court martial during 1945. I preferred neither. So not even confiding in the others, I retraced my steps to see if I could find it. Can you imagine my relief when I found it just where I’d left it? As I turned to walk the hundred or so yards back – more horror! On a small bank of earth just to my right I saw a Japanese steel helmet complete with wearer. He was facing the other way so hadn’t seen me. I reckon I did that hundred yards in an Olympic record-breaking time. I told one of our officers what I had seen, but not the circumstances. He asked me to take him where they were. I took him on a roundabout route Then we realised – they weren’t Japs after all - but members of the Indian National Army (INA) or more popularly known as Jiffs.They had been fighting for the Japanese but were now about to surrender to the first British unit they came across us. They had neither rifles or ammunition and there were only three or four of them. They posed no threat and I’ve no idea what happened to them afterwards although It was a bit worrying at the time.
Back to the Yomas patrols. It was during one of these that I contacted paratyphoid. I tried hard to shake it off but to no avail. I could barely stand up without support, let alone operate my 18 set. In that jungle the normal aerial was useless so we used a trailing aerial. I then became what I believe may well have been a ‘first’. An Army Signaller on top of an elephant – which is the manner in which I came out of the Yomas. A plane was sent for – an Auster L5 piloted by an American volunteer who flew me out to Rangoon General Hospital where, just for good measure, I managed to develop a dose of hepatitis A (yellow jaundice). From there I was transferred to a hospital in Secunderabad, Deccan. Then came Fat Boy!. And with it a real time for rejoicing.
Again, from this distance in time, it is easy to damn the use of the Atom Bomb as barbaric and senseless. But again, that would be wrong- dreadfully wrong. Stupidly wrong. I would go further and add criminally wrong. Of course 60,00 Japanese were killed or maimed when it happened. But had the conventional war been continued with an invasion of the Japanese mainland by Allied forces the death toll would have been far greater over a greater period of time. Think of those 60,000. Now double it. Now double it yet again and still once more and you begin to approach the sort of casualty figures that would have been borne by the Americans, British and Commonwealth troops plus, of course the Japanese themselves. With Fat Boy the war ended within days. And that is an unarguable fact. It just is not possible for anybody who wasn’t around to suffer the hell of the Blitz and the V-Bombs, or the untold millions who gave their lives or their loved ones lives or entire families who simply vanished off the face of this earth to appreciate the joy and indescribable relief at the news of that Bomb and with it, the end of the war. As I said and repeat, it was indeed a time for great rejoicing. And one final thought for those critics. Had Germany or Japan developed the bomb before us (and it was a close-run thing) it would have been ludicrous to argue that they wouldn’t have used it on us.
Soon afterwards I was flown back to the UK –from Secunderabad by Beechcraft to Delhi, then Karachi. Then changing to a half-filled Dakota - a ‘plane that seemingly flapped its wings to take off - the pilot told us that we would be flying over Agra and the Taj Mahal. The best time to see it, he said, was as the sun was going down – at about the time we would be passing over. He took the plane extremely low and that magnificent sight was indeed breathtakingly beautiful. First circling one way, then turning round he circled it again. Then he told us he was going to circle just once more so that the memory of the Taj Mahal would be with us forever. He was quite right of course.
From there on to Basra, Baghdad, El Adam, Cairo, Malta, Gibraltar and then to Hurn from where I phoned home (reversing the charges, of course!). There was great family rejoicing. My folks had no idea I was on my way home – I’d wanted it to be the big surprise that it really became.
But that was not quite the end of the story…
I’d arrived home in November and the weather was atrocious. I wasn’t sure which was the lesser of the two evils – cold and wet or warm and wet! After my leave period I was posted to Cark-in-Cartmel, in darkest Lancashire. Then a ‘home posting’ to the army unit closest to Roman Road. It happened to be Victoria Park, Hackney – a short bicycle ride from home. There was a Pioneer Corps Q squad stationed there. I stayed a couple of months – until early March when the weather was still bitterly cold. I felt as though I had a cold working on me which was no big deal so I tried ignoring it but it got the better of me and I took to my bed. I felt awful. All I remember after that - through occasional snatches of lucidity was – in order …
(1) My brother giving me a boiled sweet to suck. (2) Being stretchered into an ambulance. (3) Being stretchered up the steps of the London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital). (4) Then awareness of still sucking the sweet and hallucinating that I was in an army truck. Seems I was fractious and they had my bed secured with bed boards which gave me that impression. That was followed by total and utter peace and calm. I had no idea how long I’d been in a coma – or even aware that I had been comatose. One thing was certain – it wasn’t a cold working on me – it was yet another bout of malaria. Only this time it was top of the range stuff – cerebral (or spinal) which developed into meningism ( a form of meningitis). I have absolutely no idea how long I was ‘outside’ but I do recall events during that next period as clearly as though they had just recently happened. I had what has since become more widely known as ‘out-of-body experiences’. And because everything was so incredibly wonderful and peaceful I had no desire whatever to return to that body of mine – it meant nothing to me. Sadly, as much as I fought against it, the medics had other ideas.
I had seen ‘myself’ lying on my bed from a situation high on the ceiling. There were two men – one in a white coat, the other in a lounge suit. The Ward Sister was with them. I was totally disinterested in what was going on down there, I was in what I can only describe as a warm and extremely pleasant glow. After a number of further ‘occurrences ’ I found myself back in the ward, fighting hard against a force that seemed to want to take me back into my body. I resisted. I fought hard, but with a quite painless (more of an awareness) jolt I lost my fight and put my hand at the base of my spine and felt a plaster there. The two men had gone and so had the Sister. When I was able, I asked the Sister who the two men were. I’ve never seen such a reaction. She almost ‘chucked a dummy’, went away and returned with a doctor who asked me to describe the two men. That was easy. And I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. It seems the two men were doctors who had been brought in from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, which was then at Millbank. They’d arrived while I was ‘out’ and left before I’d regained consciousness.
The plaster was where I had been resuscitated by a lumbar puncture. But my experiences were incredible and in every respect truly wonderful. I had been in hospital from March 8th until June 16th 1946. I was then sent to Richmond Park Camp for a couple of weeks’ recuperation before being posted to Barrow-in-Furness where there was a small army unit at Dalton with around thirty or so German prisoners of war. That was a marking time exercise, it seems. A brand new Primary Training Centre (PTC) was opening at High Legh between Warrington and Knutsford by the South Lancashire Regiment and was then staffing. That was a great posting – my best ever. As Chief Documents Clerk I built a team of assorted ranks around me and made all the rules for documenting our intakes.
But every army unit has its own resident ‘joker’. We were no different. Ours was Alf Eadie. A time-serving squaddie with the true gift of the gab. One example – he had somehow ‘acquired’ a workmans’ tripod which he placed in the middle of the main road running past High Legh. Every evening he would hang a hurricane lamp on it which he would bring back each morning. This went on for about a week. One particular night I was sitting in the guard room with Alf and the duty personnel having a mug of tea when in walked Sergeant Plod of the local constabulary; a true “Hello, hello” character. He asked if anyone knew anything about the tripod and the lamp? Alf immediately claimed responsibility. The policeman asked what the lamp was there for? Quick as a flash Alf explained that it was to avoid cars hitting the tripod. Okay, but what’s the tripod for? To hang the hurricane lamp on, of course, Alf told him. The policeman was satisfied and turned to leave. Then the penny dropped! He just smiled and fined Alf a cup of the best brew.
FINALLY… After I’d been demobbed in November 1947 and married in 1950 and opened a Gas Board Dealership in Clapton in 1960 a customer came in to find out when her cooker was being delivered. It was lunch time and I knew that the warehouse in Stratford wasn’t manned during that period. But to please her I phoned, expecting no reply. (nobody had thought of answering machines at that time). But there was a reply. I mentioned to the man who answered the phone that it was unusual for anybody to have been there at lunch time. He explained that he never went out to lunch – due to a stomach complaint he brought his own sandwiches. There is no way I can ever explain why I should have asked such a thing, but I heard myself asking a silly question, “Something you picked up in Burma?” He was gobsmacked and so was I. “How did you know?” he asked me, then assumed it was one of his mates having a joke with him. When I’d assured him that it was sheer coincidence he still wasn’t convinced. I asked him if he knew anything about beetle stations and six Hurribombers. It was him, the RAF liaison officer I wrote about earlier. The really odd thing is why I should have asked that question in the first place. I really don’t know. I hadn’t met him since Burma and have not seen or spoken to him since that phone call. Coincidence or what?
FINALLY (2) Some years ago my wife and I took a trip to Hong Kong and on the Saturday went to the synagogue in Robinson Road. A young woman asked my wife if she might sit with her during the service. Her husband was there on business and she was on her own. She was very pleasant and came from Manchester. The three of us also spent the afternoon as guests of the local community at a wonderful lunch. She gave us her name and address and invited us to visit her when we might be in Manchester. Her name was ‘Kraft’ so I asked if her husband had an uncle Phil. “Why, yes,” she replied, “he died two years ago.” We had been in Burma together. Small world?
FINALLY (3) In February 2005 my wife and I went to Burma on the Big Lottery’s “Heroes Return” Scheme. The most incredible ten days I can remember (see below). We shared the company of some of the most wonderful people – veterans and their friends and families. Our return to Burma was in remembrance and because of the dreadful events that we shared 60 years ago. And do you know something? Those ten days in 2005 made the whole thing worthwhile!
FINALLY (4) In our group, arranged so magnificently by Orient Express, I met Bert Wilkins who, as a gunner, had been attached to the battalion during much of the period written about here including the river crossings and afterwards. It had taken me 60 years to say this… “Thank you, Bert.”
and FINALLY, FINALLY… Burma, unlike anywhere else in WW2, was essentially an infantryman’s war. I have nursed a strange and perverse conviction for many years that, despite the dreadful, unforgiving, no-holds-barred war that it was, fought in the world’s worst possible malarial conditions, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And even more to the point - this very personal confession was shared and echoed by every one of those veterans on the trip.
Not quite over the hill...
Recently Myra and I took advantage of the Big Lottery's generosity in part-funding a visit to Burma and to some of its WW2 battlegrounds under the HEROES RETURN scheme. It was truly incredible.
At Rangoon airport and at the 5-star Traders Hotel, huge banners welcomed the Burma Star Association.
We visited the Taukkyan Military Cemetery at Rangoon where more than 100 of my ex-comrades of the 2nd Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment are commemorated. It is beautifully maintained and an ideal resting place. Having visited all 27 men who died crossing the Irrawaddy in 1945, I experienced many and various moods and emotions that morning; but came away totally uplifted.
We were flown to Nyaungu - a small village near Pagan on the Irrawaddy and taken on a motor boat trip. The battalion's crossing of the river at Nyaungu in 1945 is well documented and Robert Lyman, our co-organizer was delighted to have had a participant on board. I was looking out for anything familiar - but after sixty years? Then, quite suddenly -there it was! We had arrived at the very spot where the action had taken place all those years before.
We had marched more than 500 miles from Kohima and Imphal to Pakkoku and Nyaungu. The river was at its narrowest - little more than a mile wide. We had been chosen as the assault battalion to regain the eastern bank from the Japanese. I was in "C" Company and we crossed before first light at 03:30 hrs. We were to create a foothold and draw the enemy's fire while the rest of the battalion followed us at dawn.
I was in the lead boat sitting directly behind our Company Commander, Major Casey. We paddled towards a 100ft cliff on the opposite bank. It was a clear sky with a quarter moon. We crossed unobserved. Sadly for those who followed us, several boats sprung leaks, many outboard engines failed and their boats drifted downstream into the sights of the enemy's guns ... and we lost those 27 men.
Now, sixty years later - almost to the day - I was asked to talk the others through the action.
And there it was - that very cliff - just as my memory had stored it. I was asked if I'd care to step onto that beach again? Would I not! Several of us left the boat and stood awhile at the very spot where I'd landed as the 2nd man ashore all those years ago. We were by the side of that tall cliff which I had last climbed on 14th February 1945. At Robert's invitation I led the group up that same chaung (a dried-up water course) hoping to reach the top of the cliff. Nothing had changed.
We went higher and higher, then I remembered that we had to turn right before we could turn left on to the cliff top. It really was all so familiar ... but our route had cultivated 60 years of undergrowth not unlike barbed wire. It was impassable without machetes.
A great disappointment as we were within a very few feet of the top.
Our boat down below looked considerably smaller from up there. Roger Palfrey, an ex-commissioned officer who stayed on the boat told me that the higher we went the faster we seemed to be moving and that, as he described it, "The years just rolled away". But I got a greater truth from that episode. A reminder of just how lucky I had been. And there was a twinge on conscience (and I have it still) that is wasn't right to have been playing games with the past - as we had been doing - while those 27 others had been denied the opportunity.
Pagan is littered with pagodas of all shapes and sizes. But the thing that typified Burma for me were the stilted houses. They have disappeared. The government ordered their destruction years ago so very few remain.
We were booked in at the fabulous 5-star Tharabar Hotel at Pagan and visited a small nearby village called 'Sit,Hein' where the entire village turned out to greet us. They have a local school which was built by the Japanese but it had been without staff for several years. Then the Brits out there adopted it and it is fully functional again.
We were taken by coach to Arakan which was also an important area during the war then on to a barbecue lunch facing a most beautiful lake at Meiktilla, yet another area heavily fought over. Orient Express - the tour organisers - took their own chef and food from their luxury cruiser "The Road to Mandalay" for that lunch. Later we were taken to Mount Popa which, since the war, has had a road built into it. During the monsoon and with no roads, it wasn't exactly a tourist spot!
We were due to spend four days on "The Road to Mandalay" from Pagan to Mandalay, but after only two days, shallow water ended the cruise and we were offered the choice of flying down to Mandalay or staying on the ship on its return to Pagan. After the many tours we'd been on, Myra and I chose to rest it out. The majority went on to Mandalay leaving twelve of us to cruise majestically back to Pagan. And with eighty totally-attentive staff to the twelve passengers it was a luxury we could very easily become addicted to.
Then we were flown back to the Traders Hotel in Rangoon joining the others. There was a service in the Cathedral and a wreath-laying ceremony in honour of the fallen. Then a tour of the wonderful Shwedagon Pagoda which defies description. Orient Express, organised a superb pool-side party for us at the hotel which the British Ambassador attended together with several dignitaries and government officials.
There were 43 of us on the trip including friends and family. The tour operators are to be congratulated on their total efficiency in taking care of everything. Luxury was the name of the game. The group gelled immediately and many are staying in touch.
We veterans are all in our eighties yet there wasn't an old man to be seen!