By Gordon Hughes
For many years during March, I found myself remembering Harry Sparrow, George Britnell and Frank Wood: They were among the first killed at the ambush and subsequent battle on the Indaw/Banmauk Road in Northern Burma.
It was 20 January 1944 when we left Ledo on that impossible march through the Patkai Hills and on to Mahnton. It was the bloodiest march of my war. It took us three weeks to reach the Chindwin River averaging a mere 2 miles a day for much of the time. Valleys where the heat and humidity were unbearable and peaks of 8000 feet with night temperatures just above freezing had us huddled together to keep warm. Weeks of persistent rain, with the attendant mud; leaches surreptitiously engorging themselves on limbs already bitten by mosquitoes; mules falling down on steep, slippery slopes and always the thick jungle of hard woods interlaced with tangled and practically impenetrable bamboo undergrowth. With the kukri or dah it was just possible to cut our way through. Wingate’s accolade of ‘Hannibal eclipsed’ was his recognition of 16 Brigade’s march to the Chindwin. Rifleman Harris’s description of Moore’s terrible march to Corunna ---‘drenched with rain, famished with cold and hunger, ignorant of when their torture was to cease, thousands of Redcoats toiled up the agonising slope of Monte del Cabeiro, leaving behind a trail of dying men, horses and mules’--- was probably more appropriate. We were well behind schedule and Fergusson urged us on to our operational area with all speed. From the Chindwin to Mahnton we increased our marching rate to 25 miles a day, carrying an 80 pack and being nourished with the excellent but monotonous ‘K’ rations, dropped periodically by C47 (Dakota) aircraft.
Arriving at Mahnton we set to, and converted this small village on the Meza River, into a stronghold (code named Aberdeen). We also provided the labour to remove the retaining walls or ‘bunds’ of the flat paddy fields, in order to provide an airstrip suitable for incoming Gliders, carrying earthmoving machinery. These were the tools needed for our Engineers to construct a more permanent airfield designed for C47 aircraft. Who would have thought of such a bold enterprise mounted some 300 miles behind the Enemy Lines and within a stone’s throw of their Garrisons. It was not surprising then, that after our punishing march and heavy work in preparing the glider strip we were all but exhausted and imagined we would be given some rest to recuperate. It was not to be, for Wingate ordered the Brigade to move immediately on lndaw, for a major assault on that garrison and to seize it’s airfield. Additionally 22 Column was to march to the Banmauk Road and deny its use as a supply route to the northern front, guarding Imphal and Kohima. This meant that the Queens would split up, one column (21) going to Indaw and the other (22) to Banmauk.
We, 22 Col, moved south and some 10 miles north of our intended ambush area dropped of our Rear column, HO, at a safe jungle rendezvous, to which we would repair after action on the road was completed. The fighting elements of the column now moved swiftly to Milestone 20, for we had decided after a map recce that this spot would be ideal for our purpose.
The road ran parallel to the river, the contours indicating a series of reentrants, starting from the high ground to the north and winding down to the road, where it formed a ‘U’ bend making it an ideal site for an ambush.
On arrival at Milestone 20 a ground recce confirmed our-map reading, and the area proved an even better site than had been anticipated.
Our plan was to line the roadside with two platoons to produce a curtain of fire at any convoy passing through. At each end we would position a ‘Lifebouy’ flame thrower and a Vickers MMG firing along the road, to seal the ambush. The only possible escape for the enemy was to the south, but this was down a precipitous and rocky slope ending up in the river.
Large convoys only moved by night, so we lay up by day, on high ground above the reentrant. It was teak jungle and although it was apparently open, thin undergrowth restricted vision to about 20 yards. It was important that we were not seen, for any movement would result in reports, either to Indaw or Banmauk and our surprise would be gone. The ambush position was only occupied at dusk.
It was about 0300 hours on the third night that we heard the drone of a sizeable convoy approaching from the east. Suddenly without warning trucks loaded with troops
appeared right in our midst. Flame from the flame thrower and the staccato rattle of the first MMG enveloping the leading truck opened the action and then as if not wanting to be outdone the noise of the other flame thrower and MMG closed the ambush.
Soon all hell was let loose, as individual platoon members fired into the enemy trying to escape. Dozens of grenades were hurled into the maelstrom and the unintelligible shouts of Japanese Officers trying to rally their men mingled with the piteous cry of the wounded. Then came their counter attack, as enemy soldiers tried in vain to force their way into our positions, only to be stopped by rifle fire and hand to hand fighting. The sound was deafening, automatic weapons with their constant rattle mixed with the characteristic ‘whoosh’ of the flame throwers and punctuated by the plop and subsequent explosion of ‘36’ grenades. The action seemed interminable but in reality it was all over in about 15 minutes, followed by an eerie silence, broken by the desperate moans of the dying. By previous arrangement we lay doggo in our firing positions until first light, and then withdrew to our prepared defensive positions to assess our situation. It was clear that the ambush was a success, with any enemy survivors in complete disarray. Their casualties were heavy, whereas on our part only 1 officer and 2 men were killed and a few lightly wounded.
It was politic to leave the ambush area quickly and rejoin our Rear Column HO at the RV some 10 miles north, but before doing so we needed water, needed to bury our dead and to open radio contact with Brigade. I was detailed to go down to the ambush area, get water for the column and destroy any vehicle that had escaped damage. The scene at the ambush was staggering, each truck carried a drum of petrol that had exploded or caught fire. Dead Japanese lay alongside the debris in all sorts of weird positions, some attempting to penetrate our positions had been cut down with rifle fire, others making for the river side of the road, fell - under exploding grenades. Those that made it fell headlong into the river and were drowned.
There was no sign of life and any survivors must have crawled back into the thick undergrowth to lick their wounds. Nevertheless, knowing our enemy, we took care to avoid unpleasant surprises. Meanwhile water bottles and chaguls were hastily filled and we returned to the column where orders to move out had already been given.
As the ‘point’ platoon started to move, we came under heavy small arms and mortar fire. The ambush had not, as we believed, been completely closed. Unbeknown to us there was a “lame” truck, lagging well behind the convoy, which had been reversed and made for the garrison at Indaw to raise the alarm.
This counter attack was by fresh troops from Indaw and true to Japanese tactics the first attack came in frontally. They came at us screaming like troops of baboons, only to be driven back by our fire. Again and again they repeated their frontal attacks and their losses mounted. On occasions they were able to penetrate our positions, but were driven out with the bayonet, Sergeant Major Church giving a masterly display of this art! Later the enemy varied his tactics and came at us from the reentrant on our left flank. Fortunately we had anticipated this and drove them oft, with a fusillade of grenades from rifle discharger cups and enfilade Bren gun fire.
Angrily they withdrew to reform and during this interval we were ordered through our ‘walkie talkie’ internet to disperse and we melted away through the thick teak jungle. The column had suffered a few more casualties amongst whom I remember Potter who had been shot in the guts, his innards protruded outside the wound and the bleeding was bad. All we could do was to secure the wound with a large dressing and bandage tightly. Potter did not complain, but it must have been agony for him as he bumped from side to side on a casualty pony.
After hard marching we rejoined our Rear Column. It was dark and we were welcomed with hot char and excellent biscuit “burgoo” spiced up with corned pork loaf from the inevitable ‘K’ ration. To rest in a securely guarded bivouac, without the necessity of posting our own sentries was indeed a luxury and we made the most of it. Poor old Potter did not make it, he and other wounded were taken to Aberdeen, and after a wait of two days flown to India. He died on the operating table.
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