By JR Manning
When I look back over the years to what all of us of the 14th Army went through I feet a great sadness at the very touching and sad memories of the Burma Vets. After all, with the best will in the world memories can be a little untrustworthy after fifty-two years. So before I begin I shall try and explain and state my credentials.
I served with the Burma Police in Rangoon before the war. Our HQ was in Mogul St, - a very efficient and organised Force.
Rangoon is the capital and principal port of Burma; the structure first seen by visitors was the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda. The city was surrounded by lovely green countryside, the Royal and Kokine Lakes, the Cantonment Gardens, the Zoological Gardens, the Horticultural Gardens and the Golf course at Mingaldon about 12 to 14 miles from Rangoon, which is or was one of The finest in the East. The population was about 420,000 (not quite sure), Indians, Chinese, Burmese, Shana and others. Weather conditions were cool October to February, hot March to May, monsoons June to September.
The Irrawaddy Flotilla Co ran services to stations on the Inland Waterways. The currency was Rupees, of which the sterling equivalent was approximately 1 shilling and 6 pence. What is it like today, I’d like to know? When Singapore fell to the Japanese, we knew it would not be long before we would be their next target, so a lot of us enlisted with the newly formed First Burma Division, and after six weeks training, some of us were posted to Moutmein in Southern Burma, under General Wavell. In 1942 the Japanese landed at Victoria Point, the very southern point of Burma - there was nothing to stop them, nothing at all.
Our first serious fighting against the Japs took place at Moulmein, and although we put up a very strong resistance, we were forced to retreat across the River Saleen to the rail-head at Martaban. We came under very heavy attacks from the advancing Japanese, and also from the air. Several Irrawaddy Steamers were sunk taking us across. The Military Forces in Burma, when the shooting started, were hopelessly inadequate. The two good British Battalions, the 1st Bn Glosters 28th Foot, and the 2nd Bn KOYLI suffered heavy casualties, and the only formation in the field was the 1st Burma Division. We were poor in quality, less than half-trained, ill-equipped, and in no condition to face the Japs. Overall the Japs were generally well equipped. The British forces were heavily outnumbered almost from the start. From Martaban we moved on to the line of the Sittang River, the last natural defensive position before Rangoon. On the banks of the wide strong flowing Sittang River took place one of the most furious, fierce, and terrible battles of the War. It was fought with great courage and devotion, against a very strong and inhuman enemy. These savages attacked with everything, but failed to secure the railway bridge. This, the only, bridge was kept open to allow the 17th Indian Division to withdraw, but by a grievous misunderstanding, it was blown up prematurely, with nearly the whole of the Division on the wrong side. We never knew who was responsible.
The British and Indian troops held off repeated attacks by day and night, with the enemy often a few yards away. When all hopes were lost many troops attempted to swim across this mighty river, a terrible disaster, with a very heavy loss of life.
Anyway, whilst I’ve got your attention, I’d like to say it is hard for me to pick out any one of the events or happenings that took place, but what I feel was outstanding and magnificent was the spirit and courage of the 14th Army, who, against all odds, fought tooth and nail against these inhuman savages - I feel very proud and that to me is the real Burma Star spirit. WhenToungoo, PromeandPegu fell to the Japs, it seemed to us that the fate of Burma was sealed. On General Alexander’s orders the great Oilfield of Yenangyaung was destroyed to deprive the Japs of vital supplies. The Buddhist priests in their yellow robes were very politically minded, and ardent in treacherous acts of betraying the British and Indian soldiers into murderous ambushes, helped by the Burmese JIF’s who informed the Japs of our movements.
General Alexander now had no choice but to retreat to India with the little ill-favoured Army formed before the onset of the Japanese invasion in 1942.The General himself, and all his Headquarters staff were virtually “in the bag” outside Rangoon. This was to be the beginning of the hard and bitter road of retreat, which his half trained and weary Division were to take. We were told to make our way to India, and keep our weapons against treacherous Burmese and Jap snipers, many of whom seemed to lurk in almost every tree, while every hilltop sheltered a gun, plus attacks from the air.
I have never ever seen so many people of different nationalities lying dead by the roadside, and hundreds of others fleeing in fear of their lives, -it was absolute chaos. I believe it was a journey of 700 or 800 miles or more, I’m not sure. The sun will never set on the memory of the gallant men and women who fought and died, no matter what rank or what job was done. Faces, places - the names are beyond recall.
The one million poppies dropped by a Lancaster Bomber which droned through clear blue skies, fell like droplets of bright red blood on all of us as we stood in two minutes silence to honour all those who died in the Far East. However in the years to come there should be no need for Bugles or Brass Bands to remind us of the vow they have earned for evermore.
In conclusion I would like to say, graves known and graves unknown will always be remembered, and never forgotten - gone from our eyes but not our hearts.