By Major WAS Hyde MC MiD
In taking heed of the reminder “Before it got too late”, I thought I would put to paper some thoughts of the time I spent in the Battalion.
The Battalion was part and parcel of the regular Burma Rifles. Prior to 1943 the entire Burma Rifles comprised chiefly of the three Hill Races in the country. They were the Chins, Kachins and Karens. Each race was represented in its own Battalion, ie the 3rd Bn, Burma Rifles was a Karen Battalion.
Before 1942 all the Battalions were officered by British officers seconded to the Burma Rifles. All the Viceroy Commissioned Officers were from the native races. After 1942 more Burmese Battalions were hurriedly raised for the expansion of the forces, and to fill vacancies. OCTU courses were set up and the local British and Anglo Burmese were Gazetted as Army in Burma Reserve officers.
Passing out from the second OCTU which was held in Maymyo, I was posted to the 3rd Bn, which was stationed in Mingladon, on the outskirts of Rangoon. After the battle for Moulmein in Southern Burma, and the mauling at the Sittang River Bridge, the Battalion was decimated. Some of the troops were sent to the local villages with a British Officer, in order to carry on subversive activity. Unfortunately, the Officer, Major Seagrim, later surrendered in order to protect the Karen people from reprisals. On arriving at Mandalay the. remainder were posted to other units.
I was posted to the Chin Hills Bn. The Battalion had its HQ in Falam the Capital of the Chin Hills. It was designated a Frontier Force Bn, and acted as Military Police assisting the Civil authorities (not to be confused with the Red Caps).
The Battalion was comprised of, Chins, Gurkhas, Kamonys and a few Sikhs serving in specialised positions. The clerks in. the office were Indians.
Each race was allocated its own company. Among the Chins there are five tribes, Hakas, Seyins, Konsais, Whelnos and Zahous. So there were Chin companies, and one company to each of the others. In order to simplify communication within the Battalion the common language used was Urdu, a common Indian dialect. All ranks were taught to read and write it in English script. We newcomers had to pick it up quickly. However Urdu is a fairly easy dialect to pick up. To further distinguish the Chin companies, incidentally each tribe by custom grew their hair long, and tied it up in different ways, in this Battalion they were specially allowed to keep long hair. Those Chins who joined the Burma Rifle Bns had to cut their hair.
I left Mandalay shortly before it was evacuated. I managed to get a lift by truck as far as Monywar on the Chindwin River, then onward by boat to Kalewar, where the Chin Bn had not seen any action. Right away I found myself in command of the Depot. On arrival I met the CO very briefly. While I was with the Battalion I served under two different British Officers. The first CO was a very seasoned Burma Rifles Officer, he had done a very good job in organising the Battalion and Falam into a first class place. The second CO came to us from one of the English Battalions which had been in action. As a youngster myself, he was only a year older than me, I envied him the MC ribbon he wore. This became my focal point. When I left in 1944 a Territorial Officer from a London Scottish Battalion became CO.
On arrival at Kalemuo I had no idea that the entire Army was to withdraw through Kalewa and on to Tamu, on its way to Imphal.
A full Colonel arrived to take over in Kalewa. I was then put into the picture. We reconnoitered up the Kabaw Valley running up to Tamu, with the intention of laying down food stocks etc. Later I was ordered to take a patrol East of the Chindwin River, and to the North of Shwegin. By this time the withdrawing troops had begun arriving at Shwegin. Again I was sent to the East Bank opposite Shwegin to check on the enemy coming up that flank and to keep an eye on the river traffic up the Chindwin, in case the Japs infiltrated through with the evacuees in their hundreds of small craft.
Here I witnessed the laying down of a boom across the river. It was not very successful, the barges took a long time to sink and the swift flow of the river made the operation difficult to manage. The tempo of the withdrawal was increasing by the minute. In a while I was relieved by an Indian Bn. I warned the CO not to drink the water from a stream which ran through the village and offered him my bottle. He answered that he had drunk all types of water and was not dead yet! (A couple of years later I met the same person in a railway carriage at Kalka, a station below Simla, his companion advised him not to drink the water from the toilet cistern in his whisky. He gave the same answer has he had to me by the Chindwin - we recognised each other.
At one time I happened to enter the Shwegin Basin, I must have looked lost and hungry, the crew of the 7th Armoured Division gave me a strong cup of cocoa - it was a God Send. Shortly after these tanks were destroyed. The lubricating oil was drained from the engines and the engines revved up until they seized.
The withdrawal was in full swing, everyone working like Trojans to get all the troops across the river. If ever there was a bottleneck - this was it.
We returned to Kalewar and prepared to move out. It was an awful experience. However we got to a small village off the Tamu Road, called Kalemyo. (In the Burmese language Kalewar means Big Child and Kalemyo means Little Child.) Here all the available Chin Hills Bn personnel sorted ourselves out, had a meal and headed off in various directions. With some troops I headed for Fort White, an outpost situated on Kennedy Peak, the highest peak in the area. Members of 17 Div will know all about this much contested Peak.
We were now in the Chin Hills proper, the happy hunting grounds of this Battalion.The CO contacted 4 Corps in Imphal. We immediately became Corps troops. We were ordered to remain in the Hills and carry out extensive patrolling, into the plains and to cover the myriad of tracks leading into the Hills. The Chin Hills being on the Southern flank of Imphal.
We were soon joined by a Colonel and his staff, who set about raising Levies from among the local Chins. The civil authorities were in close contact with the locals. I think they, the Chins, liked the idea and brought out their ancient black powder guns, or rather muskets, later service rifles were issued. They made their own gunpowder, and for shot cut up telephone wires.
The Chin Hills Bn was a very well organised unit, extremely self contained and fully capable of looking after itself in this remote area. Falam, the HO, is about 40 miles from the plains, and 600’ up into the clouds. There was a fine and comfortable barracks, very nice housing for the staff. A post and telegraph office and a local market, which sold small items. A spring of water supplied the establishment, but there was no electricity. The VCOs were well trained and heavily relied. upon. They had good control over the troops.
The Chins being head-hunters of old, were fearless and very hardworking. One outstanding aspect of the training was manifest in the expertise of the signallers. Signalling was carried out from hill-top to hill-top, heliograph by day and lamp by night. Most messages seemed to come in during the night, because of the cloud cover. The signallers were most vigilant in manning the stations.
There were five main outposts: Tiddim on the track to Imphal; Fortwhite on Kennedy Peak; Webula near the foot hills; Haka to the West and Falam. The hills are traversed by a fine roading system (wide track). These are maintained by the villagers, from village to village.
The Battalion was spread over a wide area, mainly facing South, there being no enemy to the rear; we did not have to look over our shoulder. We gave Kennedy Peak over to 17 Div and concentrated on our Southern front.
I spent most of my two years at Webula, and got to know the locality well. Webula is nearly 300’ high. The hills generally rise straight up from the plains. Webula was important because it was on a direct route between Kalewa and Falam. All forward troops patrolled a lot into the plains. At first patrolling was carried out for intelligence on enemy movements, it was not long before all patrols became fighting patrols. Every effort was made to keep the enemy out of the hills.
Needless to say there were many spirited moments. Our chief enemy was the incidence of Malaria. Even though the medical officer declared that all the troops needed medical attention, this was not possible, and we had to carry on. In early 1944 at the time the enemy attacked Kohima and thrust toward Imphal, he also pushed into the Chin Hills. He headed for Falam in strength causing the Battalion to pull out. We patrolled the tracks to the North of Kennedy Peak. Somehow the enemy beat us to it and by bypassing Tiddim established a block at milestone 105 between Tiddim and Imphal. I happened to enter Tiddim just then. Tiddim was the operational HQ of 17 Div.
The Supreme Commander, Lord Louis Mountbatten, happened to be there. He wanted to meet as many officers as he could, so all the strays were assembled and he came round, with a word to each of us. Years later, when he was visiting New Zealand, I was present as he was entering the Town Hall, I was deep in the crowd, instinctively I called out “Sir, do you remember Tiddim?” He heard me, and turning around he made his way through the crowd and had a few words to say. He also spoke to a sailor who was standing next to me, who had been one of his crew when the Admiral commanded a destroyer in the Mediterranean.
The Battalion assembled once again and withdrew with 17 Div. We did a last patrol for the Division to the North of Tonzan, between the Kabaw Valley and the Manipur River. On arriving at Imphal, the Battalion made its way to Shillong for a rest and refitting.
Here I left the Battalion.
During this time the Battalion won three Military Crosses and one Mention in Despatches were awarded, the Levies won one Military Cross.
Addendum: On completion of its refitting etc, the Battalion became part of the newly formed Lushai Bde and carried out some work on the enemy flanks. The Battalion put in a large scale attack at Gongaw. It then came out for a rest. L am not sure what position it played after the War ended. When I was in Pyinmina in central Burma training the 5th Bn, The Burma Rifles I believe the Chins Hills was converted to an Artillery Unit, perhaps someone would care to comment on this point. Then Burma gained its independence, and the British left. After talking with the Prime Minister elect, Aung San, I decided it was time to leave the country of my birth. It was a wise move.