A personal recollection by Major Ronald James Anderson, British Indian Army
Before attempting to describe my personal reminiscences and memories of the campaigns in Burma, I think it would be helpful, in order to obtain a true picture of events, that the background, politically, militarily, environmentally and personally be considered.
In the 1930’s the political situation on Burma was uncertain and lacking in continuity, which affected defence in particular. Up until 1937 Burma was part of India, whose government was therefore responsible for its defence and provided the bulk of the troops. India was the base for the defence of Burma. In addition to the Indian Military presence in Burma there were many thousands of Indians, mostly labourers, who had been brought in, particularly from the Bihar and Madras areas, and were mostly Hindu, for the purpose of providing labour in the rice fields. The Burmese are Buddhists, which gave rise to lots of friction on the grounds of religion and employment. There was also a growing Burmese underground movement for independence, known as “the Green Army”, which was becoming increasingly militant, particularly in Rangoon, causing a few headaches to the Burmese police authorities, officered partly by British personnel.
In 1937 Burma became responsible for its own defence, necessitating the withdrawal to India of at least part of the Indian population and moving some way towards independence. Then in 1939, coinciding with the British declaration of war against Germany, Burma’s forces, while still under their own government for finance and administration were placed for operational purposes under the British Chiefs of Staff in London. However before the effects of this change could be realised in Burma, and only a few months later, operational control was again transferred to Eastern command in Singapore, with administration divided between the War Office in London and the Burmese Government. Commanders in Chief in India pressed for the defence of Burma to be returned to India, and were successful, until soon after Pearl Harbour, responsibility passed to the new South West Pacific Command, with operational control from the Dutch East Indies. Finally on the overrun of that area, operational command of all forces in Burma returned to New Delhi.
It is not difficult to understand in the short period of about five years, all these changes in command and administration resulted in uncertainty, leading to inactivity.
On the environmental front this attitude was particularly evident. Burma is handicapped for communications because it resembles a sheet of corrugated iron, in that all mountains and rivers run from North to South, such that a journey from East to West is a nightmare of climbing mountain ranges and fording rivers of varying speed and danger with few bridges. Burma is separated from India by a range of high mountains, mostly steep and jungle clad. The area is home to some rather primitive tribes. All traffic from India, and indeed from the rest of the world, to Burma, is channelled through the port of Rangoon and thence northwards by the Irrawaddy river. A few roads and the railway ran North and South, except for a small branch line from Rangoon to Bassein. Little or no thought was therefore given to the desirability or necessity of providing a road from eastern India over the formidable Naga hills and the Irrawaddy river, upon which the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co of Glasgow operated a service for passengers and freight.
It is now obvious that if the ports of Rangoon, Moulmein and Bassein were unavailable, almost the whole of Burma was completely enclosed and isolated by the borders with China and India, across which there were no traffic routes. Thus it was that, as the possibility of such a necessity arising, feverish activity was initiated to complete the Burma road from northern Assam to China and build a road from the Indian state of Manipurto central Burma.
In addition to the problems caused by the topography of Burma, there was the damage and restrictions resulting from the annual north-east monsoons, which most British troops, in particular were later to find soul-destroying.
A Picture of Myself
Before relating my experience of the war in Burma, they might be better understood, if I give some of my personal background. Like many young men from Scotland at the time of the depression in the early thirties, I found employment with a firm of shipping agents in Calcutta, which had offices also at all main ports in India, Burma and Ceylon. At the beginning of 1935 I found myself in Rangoon, and was enchanted by the Country, it’s people and the social amenities enjoyed by the European community. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Co operated most of the large river boats which plied regularly from Rangoon to Mandalay and beyond. Almost exclusively, the officers and engineers were Scots. The Henderson Line ships, registered in Glasgow, which called regularly from the UK, were also of the same ilk, and society was nothing if not convivial. During my stay in Rangoon I was able to gain an insight into local geography, port installations, local conditions, climate and the like, which, although I did not realise it at that time, was to stand me in good stead later. I spent just over a year in Burma, and enjoyed the life-style of the population, so different from the restrictions of the Raj. So to my story.
Inthe spring of 1941, I was released by the “Essential Services Committee” in Calcutta, the exact title I cannot remember, and given permission to enlist. The nearest British infantry battalion was from the North Staffordshire Regiment, in which I was enlisted on the 11 June 1941. After a brief period of square-bashing and settling-in, I was sent to an Officers’ Training College in Bangalore. After three months of intensive training there, I was commissioned into the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which, with respect, is not what I would have preferred. About a month later I was with an Indian GTP Company on the north west frontier, trying to organise the teaching and training of recruits to drive 3 ton trucks in mountainous terrain. Unexpectedly my OC received a signal instructing that I proceed forthwith to the director of Transportation, Indian Engineers Bombay. Having duly reported, I was directed to a tented camp on the outskirts of the city - the scene of intense activity. I had been posted first to an Inland Water Transport Company, then almost overnight, to an Indian Docks Operating Company. Both units were due to leave for the Persian Gulf within days. Having handed my small pack of personal effects to the QM, I was standing on parade ready to move off, when I was informed that I had been posted to yet another Docks Operating Company, (No 214) which was also under orders to move. Shortly thereafter I made the overland journey by rail to Madras, which gave me just over two days and two nights to become acquainted with my fellow officers and senior NCOs.
In Madras harbour, the unit embarked on board a coastal Bl steamer, having no idea where we were destined. The pundits were quite sure however we were destined for Singapore. Having sighted land however and having calculated the distance travelled, the sea-going experts agreed that the ship was heading for Burma, which could only mean Rangoon. Sure enough, at dawn, the ship entered the estuary of the Rangoon River. About forty five miles away to the north. I could see from the bright halo in the sky that Rangoon was on fire. As the ship steamed slowly past the Burmah Oil Company’s storage tanks at Syriam and observing the increasing number of corpses floating seawards, it became clear that there had been considerable recent bombing it was either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I cannot remember. Along the wharves in the port, ships were either discharging cargo or anchored in mid-stream awaiting a berth alongside. At this stage there were still civilian Burmese and Indian gangs of stevedores at work, but daily, increasing numbers of Indians were fleeing northwards to escape the danger from air raids and the problems of life in the city. There was a serious danger of the port coming to a complete standstill.
At this point, it is perhaps pertinent to explain briefly the composition of the Docks Operating company. The establishment and equipment is based on the capability necessary to load or discharge an ocean going vessel having four to six holds, fitted with either derricks on board or shore cranes, either electric or hydraulic. The unit consists of four sections of about 120 men in each and a small headquarters section. In addition to the Officer Commanding, his Second-in-Command and Adjutant, there were four section officers of the rank of Captain or Lieutenant. There are also seven or eight Warrant Officers or Sergeants, usually form the Royal Engineers, with some dock experience. The sections comprise stevedores, winch and crane drivers, riggers, clerical personnel and an important infantry defence nucleus drawn from ex-Regular Indian Army regiments, either Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers or Havildars, whose purpose is to ensure that the sapper are proficient in the use of the rifle and Bren gun and military discipline generally. VCOs hold the rank of Subadar, Jemadar and, in my experience, were mostly Sikhs. As the Units normally have Hindus and Muslims, provision has to be made for separate slaughter and cooking practices.
On duty in Rangoon:
Thus composed, my Company was competent and ready to go to work as soon as disembarkation was completed, coinciding with the disappearance of the civilian port labour. I recall that there were quite a number of ships alongside the wharves and also dispersed at anchor in mid-stream waiting to be discharged. A proportion of the cargo to be discharged should have been taken delivery of into barges alongside for subsequent towage up-river destined for China. Such cargo included large wooden packing cases or crates containing CKD, or Completely Knocked Down vehicles but in the absence of barges were being dumped on the quay, causing impossible congestion. Most of the sheds were quite large but already stacked high with stores. The difficulties which Ordnance and Service Units were having to remove their equipment from the wharves was creating an almost impossible bottle-neck. To say that the situation was chaotic was puffing it mildly!
The month of January 1942 was not pleasant. Th Jawans, (Indian Troops), worked almost non-stop with little or no sleep and with frequent enemy bombing raids. The wharves continued to be stocked high in spite of the frantic efforts to organise dispersal and clearance to allow discharge from ships to continue.
Occasionally I had time to venture into the city, parts of which I already knew. I called on my Previous Office Manager, an elderly and much respected gentleman, who was quite sure that he had nothing to fear and therefore declined offers of passage by sea to India.
Many of the streets had been partially, if not totally destroyed by fire. There were thousands of men, women and children besieging the railway station, in the hope of finding space on a train going up-country. Both day and night there were signs of looting and violence, indicating a progressive breakdown of law and order. Nevertheless, it was the general impression at that time, that the Japanese would not attempt to invade Burma, and that somehow, reinforcements, particularly from the Royal Air Force, would arrive soon and deter any further air attacks. I do not recall that there was any Royal Air Force presence in Mingladon, the Airport serving Rangoon. However pilots from the American Volunteer Group, the AVG had been seen in the City, indicating that the “Flying Tigers” were doing something to reduce that air domination of the enemy.
During January 1942, it seemed that all the Burmese civilian port workers had fled, leaving behind them a small number of Indian stevedores who were more than a little worried about their own survival. It was therefore decided to recruit the fit men into the Indian Army, and thereby raise a new Docks Operating Company, No 213. We also had to transfer some of the officers and men from my present unit, which was by this time much depleted because of sickness and injury.
The sick and wounded were evacuated, and I became 2 i/c of the newly formed unit, which was now up to strength and more able to cope with the pressure of work. Having acquired a working knowledge of Urdu and the local Lascari Baht languages, I got involved with the daily technical problems. L was given a number of ancillary duties, amongst which was to assess the necessity of commandeering vehicles from infantry and artillery units which were currently being unloaded on the wharves. These vehicles would have course been ideal Io disperse the cargoes and keep the wharves clear. I can only leave the reader to imagine the reception that I received from irate Commanding Officers, when I asked if they could spare a few of their trucks for this purpose. On the same tack, another of my ancillary duties was to help organise the assembly of the CKD trucks which had come from the USA and were packed in large wooden cases and crates. These CKD trucks could be diverted from their original destination in Western China to satisfy the more urgent need of moving material northwards. The assembly of these proved to be an almost impossible task, as more and more often a vehicle would be almost complete and ready to roll, only to discover that one small but essential engine part was missing.
The Japanese threat:
At the beginning of February 1942, there were signs of growing nervousness, and a realisation that perhaps after all it could happen, that the Japanese would invade Burma, and sooner rather than later. Rumours that all was not going well in Singapore added to the general feelings of dismay amongst the remaining European and Indian civilians. As I have already indicated, the Burmese were neither friendly nor trustworthy, having been penetrated by a well organised fifth column. To make matters worse there was also talk of an Indian National Army, under the command of Subhas Chandra Bose, having been formed which was to assist the Japanese to drive the British out of India. Apart from the mental strain of such conjecture, there was the daily problem of keeping our troops fed, clothed, rested and within reach of medical treatment. Quite apart from the growing number of cases of malaria, dysentery and the like, there was a constant stream of work-related accidents of various degrees of severity, mostly caused by the necessity to hurry and keep the wharf free of congestion. By this time, the air raids of the Japanese were also beginning to be ignored, and consequently the work on the docks was less and less interrupted. The first two weeks of February 1942 were in fact something of a nightmare, as I look back on it. Law and order in Rangoon had almost completely broken down. All the public services had stopped. There was no more water or electricity and no sanitation service to clear the streets of refuse and corpses. Paradoxically not everyone was trying to get out of Rangoon. Against the flow of Indian refugees heading north out of Rangoon, there was a counter flow of terrified Indians leaving the countryside and trying to get into Rangoon so as to escape by ship. These people were constantly harassed by Dacoits and hostile Burmese. In such circumstances it wasn’t hard to understand why death and disease were always on the increase. In fact the numbers of corpses which were floating down stream, no longer attracted any attention or speculation. Gangs of men were on the rampage on the city streets, and at night, the light of any streetlights was replaced by the orange glow of burning buildings which echoed back the screams of the murdered and dying.
Fewer ships were by now arriving in Rangoon but there was still the same urgency to discharge the cargoes. It was now known that to the south and east of Rangoon there was at least one Division of the Burma Rifles, which was thought to be sufficient, if the worst came to the worst, to permit a controlled withdrawal by sea.
Nevertheless it was thought prudent to pay some attention to survival. The Company had been issued with Bren guns before leaving Bombay, but also had some Italian rifles which had been captured in Ethiopia. These were meant for arms drill training, and were to be later replaced with standard British .303 rifles. Needless to say there was no ammunition for our Italian rifles and the replacement .303s failed to materialise. However, as seems to be customary on the British forces, usable rifles and ammunition to go with them gradually appeared and no questions were asked. In a strange way life seemed a bit better then. The Company was now well experienced and competent to carry out its task. There was now the means to defend ourselves and if fate dictated, an escape to India by sea would be organised. Calm before the storm!!!
The fall of Singapore:
Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on the 15 February 1942; the repercussions of this were both immediate and tragic. It was expected that air raids on Rangoon would intensify and that Japanese forces would invade Burma by land, somewhere due east of Rangoon or possibly by sea with the port of Bassein as their primary objective, despite the fact that this port could not accommodate ocean going vessels. By land the enemy would have to cross the Salwen and Sittang rivers, which could be considered as important natural barriers. Added to this it was thought that there were sufficient British and Indian forces in these areas to halt any advance. Escape to India by sea was still possible. Apart from that other avenues had been closed down. Almost overnight the role of the Company changed. In general terms the order was to ship out all un-required surplus stores and vehicles, whether they were armoured or not. It became the responsibility of the Senior Naval Officer to earmark all this equipment and to deliver it alongside for loading. My fellow officers and technical personnel then had the most difficult task of organising the loading such that the stability of the ship and the proper stowage of cargo was assured. On the whole, Masters and ship’s officers were co-operative but demurred whenever ammunition or other dangerous cargo was presented. Ships did continue to arrive in Rangoon. Some of these in fact had been diverted on their way to Singapore. I distinctly remember the arrival of a troopship full of fresh faced British soldiers. They had come via the Cape, and I recall the amazed look as they came ashore dressed in their desert kit. Their looks were however nothing compared to that of the Commander of an artillery battery when he found out that his guns were in fact on a cargo ship which was last reported heading to the Red Sea. The amazement and confusion of those landing was increased by the sight of front line troops with their guns and vehicles arriving at the same place expecting evacuation. During the war you learned very quickly not to reason why !!!
By this time the pace of dock-side activity had increased considerably, and our Company had vacated the camp outside the Dock Area, and were now either living on board ships or on the wharves themselves. Frustration and exhaustion were beginning to have serious effects on health and morale. There had been no mail for weeks and there was growing concern as to the plight of families both in the UK and in India. Inevitably there were a number of cases of men going AWOL. These had either stowed away on ships, which under the circumstances wasn’t difficult, or had ventured into Rangoon and been murdered. Unfortunately some of the troops who were waiting to be evacuated became impatient with the speed and methods which were being used to load and stow their equipment on departing ships. This led to unpleasantness and recourse to rank, not to mention additional delays, frustration and accidents. Spasmodic air raids had by now become an irrelevancy to us, and work continued non-stop, all day and through the night using the ship’s lights and often vehicle headlights for shore work. To make matters worse, we had the additional problem of thousands of Indians, both men, women and children who would desperately try to climb aboard any vessel they could find and hide, hoping to escape. This pitiful situation unfortunately led to troops being ordered to throw these refugees into the river and sentries were posted, with fixed bayonets, at all infiltration points.
I have vivid memories of standing for hours at the foot of the gangway of a Norwegian freighter, the ‘Troya’, with my revolver drawn. I remember that a young ship’s officer was posted at the ship’s end of the gangway. I cannot recall his name but we spent many long and weary hours discouraging boarders. It seemed so inhuman not to allow women and children a chance to escape!
Many years later I happened to be travelling by train from Hull to London, and found myself in conversation with the gentleman sitting opposite to me. To prove how small a world this is, he turned out to be the very same ship’s officer who stood guard on the ‘Troya’ with me in Rangoon in 1942, an unhappy task for both of us but a happy coincidence that we should meet again. The days began to pass quickly fuelled by the urgency of the situation, and knowing that the task and performance of our Company was a vital link with the front line. Possibly because of this, such tribulations as exhaustion, irregular and poor meals, heat, humidity and sickness seemed to be borne willingly. Even the danger of air attacks, did not dent our resolution, but smiles were hard to come by.
It was known that fighting was now taking place off to the South East, but the true seriousness of the situation was not realised until confirmed news came in that the railway bridge over the Sittang river between Moulmein and Rangoon had been blown up. This was bad enough but still worse was to come when news came in that a part of 17 Division had not made it across and was trapped on the other side. The troops from the 17th who had made it across the bridge, or had swum the river, were in a pitiful condition, having lost or abandoned much of their arms and equipment. In order to alleviate the situation I was ordered to take an armed party of sepoys, in two 1 5cwt trucks out into Rangoon and to commandeer whatever items I considered the Division required from whichever shops or stores had not already been looted. Of particular need were cooking utensils, plates and cups and mosquito nets.
In the centre of Rangoon there was a large multi-storey department store. The name of the store escapes me but because it had large security doors, these had not been forced. At the rear of the building I located a terrified Durwan, or watchman, who I persuaded to un-lock the main doors. It took us about an hour to load a wide range of household goods onto the two trucks. The material was handed over to the beleaguered British soldiers, who accepted it gratefully, including I might say my two trucks. I decided not to dispute their claim, and left with the perverse satisfaction, that while in the process of carrying out our orders two Burmese looters had been found hiding in the store, and shot.
The fall of Rangoon:
The fact that he fall of Rangoon was imminent was obvious. You could see that he oil storage tanks at Syriam were on fire, and down river the clouds of black smoke smudged the sky-line. The deliberate destruction of installations, river boats, or anything else which could be of use to the advancing enemy was in progress. All of the CKD trucks which were still unpacked were destroyed as well as the assembly workshops.
I was returning to camp one evening after a spell of destroying material useful to the enemy, I learned that another officer had been posted to the Company. He was in fact a long time resident of Burma, who had stayed behind to protect the interests of his civilian employers. When his continued presence ceased to fulfill any useful purpose, he had been given an emergency commission into the Army. His wife and family had been long evacuated, and since his and his family came from my home town, Edinburgh, he and I became quite friendly. During one of our chats, my new found friend mentioned that he had left some personal papers and many valuable possessions in his bungalow on the outskirts of Rangoon. He had had neither the time nor the opportunity to retrieve them, and as our continued stay in the area would surely now be brief, he was very anxious to return to his old home and salvage what he could. Like everyone else he had been warned that only the minimum of private kit would be allowed on board. This really meant the clothes you stood up in and what you could reasonably hand carry.
I got permission and put together a party of heavily armed sepoys which included a venerable Sikh havildar, and drove to my friend’s house. The front door was protected by an expanded metal gate which was locked. There was no sign of the house-boy who had been left in charge. After some minutes the house-boy did appear, not knowing whether the Japanese had arrived or not. The house-boy let us in while the sepoys stood guard around the house. You see many sad things during a war, but the pathos of watching somebody handling his simple but treasured property for the last time and saying goodbye to all he had built in his life was particularly touching. He had a solid silver tray for example which was gifted to him by his firm for some special occasion and inscribed with his name. It was obviously of some value, but to him it represented much more. He had to leave it in a drawer, and abandon it to the Japanese. He found his papers, which was all he could hope to carry on board anyway, and left.
No return tickets:
Whilst getting others out, my fellow officers and I could not help but start to speculate as to which ship, either in port or currently due in, would be ear-marked for our own evacuation. It was now the beginning of March 2942, and our worst nightmares were about to become true. At a hurriedly convened meeting of officers, the Commanding Officer announced that there would be no evacuation by sea for us. Having expended ourselves to get the ships loaded with their human and material cargoes and safely away to sea, the final irony was that such an escape would not be extended to us. To all intents and purposes, we were expendable, and worse, it was official.
Although we didn’t see it that way at the time fortune had given the condemned man a sporting chance. We could walk out of Burma. We would have to navigate as far north as we could up the Irrawaddy river, and then walk the rest through the jungle, over the Naga hills and into India. So we commandeered three flat bottomed river steamers. These were about 100 feet long with a beam of about 20 feet. They had a wood burning boiler and single propeller and drew about 4 feet. These vessels were to carry us to the town of Prome about 200 miles up the Irrawaddy, about halfway to Mandalay. The whole thing sounded almost credible but where were we going to find the crew for these steamers, serangs, engineers, leadsmen not to mention people who could navigate the river. They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”, and sure enough, men came forward from the ranks professing to have the skills and knowledge to get the steamers under way. A rather elderly stevedore, a Muslim and a few others who came from East Bengal, what is now Bangladesh, said they had been brought up on the banks of the big river systems and were familiar with river boats of various types. Before long this elderly man was able to report that he had found sufficient crew for all three of the steamers, and requested permission to get up steam to check seaworthiness.
Panic had strangely died out. The whole population had resigned itself to the fact that Rangoon would soon fall. It was strange to see the large numbers who turned towards the magnificent golden Schwegadon Pagoda for spiritual comfort. Having realised that escape by sea was now definitely impossible, many of the refugees had left the port area. An eerie calm reigned over the city as those that were left awaited their fate, or for some to hail the arrival of their “liberators”. Fires were allowed to burn themselves out, the air raids appeared to have stopped and the silence was only occasionally broken by rifle fire and screams. This left us in no doubt as to how close the enemy really was’
It must have been during the first week of March. Men were embarked in haste and the steamers made ready to sail. As a final act of defiance I and the Senior Naval Officer and a couple of Bren Gunners made a final demolition check. Those river boats that remained were scuttled in the river and the wooden boats and sampans riddled with bullets. Our steamers moved out upstream in line ahead, making about 4 knots against the current. As we left it was gleaned from people on the banks that the Japanese had over-run the airport at Mingladon and were moving into the outskirts of Rangoon itself. The question now was, had we left in time?
That night as we slipped along the Twante Canal, that links the Rangoon river and the Irrawaddy, our boats were suddenly picked out by intense searchlights. We were travelling without lights, having just about enough moonlight to navigate. The effect of being hit suddenly by the searchlights was shattering. Fingers immediately closed on triggers. The searchlight turned out to be mounted on board a large motor launch operated by the Burmese Navy, who after we identified ourselves and exchanged intelligence with them allowed us to continue our slow journey in the darkness. At daylight we were in the Irrawaddy river itself, and now making even less headway against a strong current.
Life on board:
On board, a routine developed, which never changed. At daybreak, the cooks made large pans of strong tea, sentries and look-outs were posted, weapons were re-checked and kit stowed away for the day. Each man got two bucketfuls of river water poured over his head, and the barber with his razor would open for business! The decks were washed down with river water every day. When fuel ran low a party would go ashore at a convenient point and cut down a few trees.
The main problem was that on such a small craft with such a large number of men on board, space was at a premium. The after-deck was occupied mainly by the cooks with their fire places and stocks of bagged rice and dhal, with only a narrow corridor between them which permitted access to the latrines which were suspended over the stern. Immediately aft of the engines, amidships there was a space for stacking wood and also a water tank from which water was drawn through a very elementary filter system. This was used for drinking, and after passing over the engines for cooling was also used for tea.
Each ship had a canvas awning extending the full length. In the mid-day heat the awning was a godsend. When not on essential tasks, all on board kept watch along both river banks. Each day an informal sick parade took place, when such medical supplies which were available were dispensed, more with hope than certainty. Fortunately there were no cases of malaria, cholera or dysentery as I recall.
Occasionally enemy aircraft could be seen overhead, now and again dropping down for a closer look. Surprisingly the ships were never attacked. From time to time the distant sound of rifle and gunfire was heard, but never too close. One thing was certain, on most stretches of the river bank, there were almost continuous streams of refugees trudging northwards. The serangs showed an almost uncanny knowledge of the whereabouts of sand banks, and only very occasionally did we ever hear the sound of sand scrapping under the bottom of the boat.
Late in the afternoon, activity on the deck increased as the cooks prepared a meal of rice and dhal or chapatis, with a measure of chilli to make the meal more palatable. Meat was not a regular item on our menu, although I do recall that there were occasions when we stopped to replenish wood stocks, that a few goats appeared, which were promptly slaughtered and consumed.
As nightfall approached, which in the tropics is sudden and about the same hour every night, all cooking fires were extinguished. Bren guns and arms were checked, sentries and look-outs posted and everyone settled down to another uncertain and long night. On most nights all that could be heard was the periodic call of the leadsman communicating the depth readings to the serang and the helmsman, and of course the swish of the water past the gunwales as it slipped past the boat to be churned in the wake of the propeller.
I have no idea how long the voyage to Prome actually took. At times it seemed never-ending. We passed many villages and the minimum attention was to be drawn to our little convoy.
Eventually we came within the sight of Prome, over which hung a thin pall of smoke. Having reported the arrival of the Company, it was made known to us that labour was urgently needed to shift the mass of stores and equipment which had accumulated there during the withdrawal. Prome was the terminal of the branch railway line linking Rangoon with Mandalay, and it turned out that many of these railway wagons had never been touched since they arrived. Although the Company would have preferred to work on ocean-going vessels, the men surprisingly showed willingness to undertake “coolie” tasks.
Halt in Prome:
Later we left our worthy little river steamers and embarked on the “Mingalay”, a much larger steel steamer and a valued unit of the Flotilla Co’s fleet. Our new home was over 200 feet long with two decks, a flying bridge, and an overall canvas awning. The ship, whose steam driven engines were located amidships, had a broad beam and a remarkably low freeboard. The ship’s civilian crew were still on board and had agreed to remain. Now that the Company was located on board, the adjutant was able to catch up on his Part II orders and other such paperwork, surprising given the acute shortage of paper. British military discipline gave us both the order and the organisation to keep going. Section Officers went about the inspection and where necessary the replacement of uniforms and equipment, and the Quarter Masters to perform an inventory of the equipment which had been lost, such that we could optimise our holdings and so jettison that which circumstances dictated we did not need.
The first notable thing was a marked improvement in diet. There was now more tinned food which was much more attractive to the European palate, and now and again the odd bottle of Bengal gin appeared. Sadly of course there was still no mail. This was especially problematic for the British as we began hearing reports of Luftwaffe air attacks across the Channel and of the Blitz over London. There was however little time to devote to worrying about such things as there was more than enough work for both crew and shore parties to get the Mingalay loaded and prepared for the journey further up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay.
There was a real urgency in our work. Rumours spread like wildfire and there didn’t seem to be any reliable intelligence of the real situation at all. The most persistent view was that Prome was in fact encircled by the Japanese and that our front line was currently just south of the Yenangyuang oil fields. This meant that our escape route to India would be cut, presuming of course that had not already happened. On reflection, improved intelligence supplied to L of C units might have done much to steady declining morale!
On up the Irrawaddy river:
It must have been about the third or fourth week of March 1942, perhaps even early April when our departure preparations were completed. Various parts of other units, British, Indian Gurkha or Burmese boarded for the escape voyage. Because of this added number, space on board was at a premium. We had three dumb barges alongside filled with stores, ammunition and large boxes of tea. A fourth barge joined us. Its hatch covers were closed, as below it was full of convicts from the local civilian jail. There were a few armed guards, but the prisoners were not handcuffed or restrained, so I reckon they had a pretty good chance of swimming to freedom if the chance presented itself. What a very strange situation!
That much in advance of the Monsoon, the river level was low and the “Mingalay” had to move to mid-stream to find deep water. Because there was such a mish mash of people on board in cramped and unpleasant conditions, a certain amount of friction was probably inevitable. True to form, the British Army threw up a solution to this in the form of a senior officer of the British Army contingent of Royal West Kent Regiment. Captain Cosgrave proved to be an accomplished disciplinarian and organiser, and before long, all disputes were settled, and acceptable arrangements were made for both messing and the allocation of deck space.
The British troops took charge of the Bren guns and their deployment in case of air attack. During the first few days after leaving Prome, the occasional Japanese plane would in fact appear, causing us all to wish that the “Mingalay” did not present such a large and easy target. Nothing however happened, and the “Mingalay” steamed on further and further up river at its maximum speed consistent with safety.
By our reckoning Mandalay was about another 200 miles to the North, and we were able to steam all day and into part of the night thanks to the bow-mounted searchlight. Navigation in shallow water was difficult enough during the day, but at night it was a severe test of nerves. From time to time we would hear the awful jarring sound followed by shudders which went the length and breadth of the ship, as her keel would scrape over a sand bank or other submerged obstruction in the river. Luckily she always managed to slide over, and we never came to a complete stop.
Enemy Zero attacks:
One day as the ship rounded a bend in the river, we could see a thick cloud of smoke off in the distance on our starboard side. Accepted wisdom on board was that this must be the oilfields at Yenangyaung which if true was bad news for us as this would mean that demolition ahead of the Japanese had already started, or if not that the Japanese were already bombing.
It was just after this that the dreaded, although expected air attack came. Two flights of Japanese Zeros flew in on us, low, and from the North, machine guns blazing. The whole body goes into a heightened state of awareness, which is probably why the image is still so clear and vivid. For example I can distinctly recall seeing the pilots with their white scarves trailing in the air stream behind their cockpits, and the large red circles painted on their fuselages almost glowing in the sunlight. The Bren guns on our ship opened up in retaliation, but frankly with very limited success. The Zeros came again and again, I cannot remember exactly how many passes they made but although the engagement seemed to last an eternity it in fact lasted about half an hour.
Unlike a film, in a real attack you only get one view of the action. For me I recall standing on the bridge a few feet from the helmsman and Captain Cosgrave, when a young Lieutenant whose first name was Irwin scrambled up to me at the top of the companion way. Before he could speak to me, he was shot through the head, and fell dead at my feet. That summed it up I suppose. This was one second of the war in Burma, and the determining second in the life of Lieutenant Irwin. Unlike a film there is very little drama either. When the enemy planes withdrew we had a chance to see what else happened during the attack, assess the damage, count the dead and attend to the wounded. The exact number of dead I never knew, although Ire-call they were all laid out on the upper deck and covered over. As regards wounded, I really didn’t see many and the screaming which followed the initial raid soon quietened down. Funny that, I still don’t know why. Our Company suffered surprisingly few casualties, mostly flesh wounds to legs and arms, but I noticed one young sapper who had had his stomach ripped open by a bullet and was trying to keep his entrails in place with both hands clutched to his midriff, he died soon afterwards. We had been bombed many times, but this was our first encounter with gunfire.
To the credit of the serang, the Mingalay had maintained speed and course throughout, and quite amazingly, in what only seemed like minutes after the enemy had withdrawn, large dixies of hot strong tea appeared to which large quantities of condensed milk had been added. This was most welcome and helped conversation to return. This made the task of washing the decks of blood and vomit more bearable. Not surprisingly some of the convicts had escaped by jumping overboard. One of our tender barges had also broken loose and disappeared downstream.
Arrival in Mandalay:
Accepted opinion was that the Japanese pilots must have realised that the Mingalay was still on the move, and consequently further air attacks could be expected. There was nothing we could do about that but hold our course and wait. We did put bags of rice along the gunwales in lieu of sandbags to provide some degree of protection, but fortunately for us they were not put to the test. There were in fact no more air attacks, and after perhaps another week the Mingalay steamed into Mandalay. I can’t recall the exact date of our arrival but it must have been towards the end of April 1942.
For a short time after our arrival, the Company were the sole occupants of the Mingalay, and were allotted a variety of tasks along the river banks. Mandalay was still being heavily bombed, and fires were now burning out of control. Naturally there was considerable uncertainty and frustration, a situation which bred rumour after rumour. It did not take long before it was realised that our Company could not serve any useful purpose. Our Commanding Officer declined the proposal that the Company should form part of the Chinese Army which was in the vicinity so that we could be withdrawn to China. Eventually after many meetings with local Army 1-1.0. permission was granted for us to proceed to India.
No one seemed to know, with any degree of accuracy just how far away the Indian border really was nor in fact which roads existed or the type of terrain we would have to cross. It was also with much concern that we learned that most of the food and rations had been moved further up-river to Bhamo, and little or nothing now remained for us. In fact the Company only had one 15 cwt truck and a station wagon of doubtful reliability. It’s difficult to describe that place or our feelings of abandonment. Suffice it to say that the weather was very hot and humid and the sickly stench of death was everywhere. On the horizon we could clearly see the build up of heavy cloud. Conditions already bad were soon going to get worse!
To underline our feelings of abandonment, one day the Commanding Officer came on board and announced to us that as far as he could tell Army H.Q. had left and that we were now completely on our own. That had an immediate effect and preparations were made for our immediate departure. By evening of the same day vehicles, troops and what essential stores we could scrounge from abandoned dumps, had been ferried across to the west bank of the river. Towards dawn, after roll call and last minute decisions, the Company formed up in column of route and marched off Northwest in the direction of Shwebo and the Chindwin river.
The long walk home:
It was considered imperative that maximum speed be maintained, as no one knew how far the enemy was from us. As I recall the Company halted only in the early hours of the following morning to rest. This particular part of Burma is dry and water became the prime scarcity. Most of the water bottles were by now empty, and as the days passed, exhaustion and thirst were beginning to take their toll. The column became seriously extended because of differences in walking pace, and at times must have been approaching a mile long. To complicate matters, as the march continued, increasing numbers of Indian civilian refugees attached themselves to the column believing that by doing so they would avoid harassment by hostile Burmese.
The road was single lane and over considerable stretches its surface was badly broken up. Off the road columns of refugees walking parallel to our column were raising volumes of dust, which added to the distress caused by thirst. The only consolation was that the road, though bad could be used at night and enabled our column to keep on course.
When we got to Shwebo, it was a smouldering ruin. The next town, Ye-U, was in a very similar state, but beyond Ye-U our single lane road ran out and gave way to bullock cart tracks and dry river beds called “nullahs”. These were filled with very fine sand and were particularly difficult to cross. Increasingly we had to halt, to let the rear sections catch up. Because of this valuable time was being lost and it was realised that a change of practice was now essential.
A squad of fit men was despatched to search for food, water or fruit on either side of the track the main column would travel. If they were successful they would wait with the supplies until the main column caught up. The decision, if sounding somewhat cruel was also taken to detach the men who were in the final stages of exhaustion or suffering from leg ulcers and injured feet, and to let them progress at their own speed. It’s easy to imagine what a difficult and emotional decision this was, but we had to consider the survival of the majority as priority, and as such we had very little option. Perhaps the archives contain the stories of the men who were thus detached. Theirs must truly have been a terrible experience and will give the reader another perspective on this, the reality of the retreat to lndia. There was always a chance that rescue might come for the fifty or so men we had to leave behind. I hope so with all my heart
The Chindwin river:
The column was once again moving as a unit, and it was again possible to make satisfactory headway. The terrain was however changing and the dry scrub began to give way to jungle. This told us that the Chindwin river could not be that far away. Also, because we were now progressing positively, the feeling of growing hopelessness which had characterised the stop-go stage of the march disappeared, and morale improved. In due course the column arrived at the town of Shwegyin, on the eastern side of the Chindwin, which is a fast flowing river ~n spate, but even at this time impossible to ford as it was too deep and so we had somehow to float ourselves across.
It was here that we met up with a considerable number of British, Gurkha and Indian troops. The place was littered with hundreds of vehicles of all types which had been abandoned by the units which had already passed through. The small two decked river steamer which plied between Shwegyin and the town of Kalewa, about five miles upstream, could not carry
vehicles, so this was the end of the line for any vehicles. For this reason large scale demolition work was in progress to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. -
So we had to retrieve what was left of our rice supplies from our own truck and station wagon and abandon them with the others on the banks of the Chindwin river. The rice was duly distributed amongst the men, and from now on each man would have to carry his own supplies, that is, until they ran out.
Surprisingly, in spite of the congestion the scene on the river bank was one of order and calm. The British Army discipline and organisation was once more apparent and procedures had been set for orderly embarkation and arrangements made for orderly embarkation and arrangements for distribution of limited quantities of food and drink. For the first time in days, I was able to take my boots off and rid myself of the leeches and other blood sucking creatures which infested the jungle tracks. I recall the bliss of sitting soaking my feet in the river, holding a mug of sweet tea and munching on what looked like thick dog biscuits and then putting on a clean pair of socks.
After a few days the Company was called forward to embark. All I can remember of this journey were the wrenching screams of a senior British officer who had accidentally set himself on fire while demolishing a vehicle. He was lying on the tiny saloon table suffering what must have been excruciating pain. There was a small medical unit in the vicinity, but only primitive first aid treatment could be given.
You tak’ the high road:
From our landing point at Kalewa, there was no recognisable road, just tracks leading off in all directions. After disembarkation each unit chose its own track and direction and moved off. Luckily the countryside soon became less dry, with more trees and scrub to provide us with shade and cover from the air. Despite this, as the days passed it was discernible that the health of the Company was deteriorating rapidly. Thirst and starvation, had led to a curious dulling of their mental condition and of course resistance to disease reduced. Consequently increasing numbers of cases of malaria, cholera and dysentery were reported. Also because many of the men were not used to wearing boots, they were suffering terribly from suppurating blisters and the column had to stop to let them catch up. Not surprisingly the slow rate of progression again gave rise to anger and frustration amongst the fitter soldiers. The reader will probably not be surprised that the column continued to practice the same brand of utilitarian principles to its own survival, and all of these poor devils were left behind.
By now only about 20% of the original Company remained, and most of the Officers and BORs were feeling both the enormous physical as well as mental strain. We were still not in sight of the Naga hills and we were continuously losing men who thought they had a better chance alone and who deserted. For some the warnings of going it alone went unheeded or were misunderstood.
Vengeance is mine:
For most of the withdrawal it hadbeen firmly impressed on all ranks what the risks were of contact with the Burmese. Despite this, I recall one day we were approaching a Bhuddist monastery, or Poogji-Chaung, and a small group of our Hindu sappers requested permission to approach it closer and perhaps be able to buy, trade or steal water and provisions. More often than not these buildings were constructed over or near small natural springs. As the sappers were not Muslims, permission was granted, and they were warned that the column would not await their return. At this stage I was in the rear of the column, and I was reminded of the expedition to the Poogji-Chaung, when a couple of hours later a few of the sappers’ comrades, some of whom were carrying rifles asked permission to return to find out what had happened to them. I agreed to this, and some time later they returned to report that they had found them all murdered. Almost as an afterthought, a member of their group, a Gurkha whose lethal kukri knife stood out unsheathed in his belt, smiled at me and hoped that the “captain sahib” would not be upset but all of the monks, poongjis, were now also dead!
Every man for himself:
There was indeed danger everywhere and the officers now agreed that it was becoming both difficult and dangerous to continue as a unit. It was obvious that by holding back the strong in favour of the weak was prejudicing the survival chances of the strong. It was at that point that a very un-military decision was made. It was decided to break ranks and that each man should proceed at his own pace, by whatever route he chose, wearing uniform or not. There was the proviso that whenever they reached India, or an established Indian H.Q., they would revert to uniform and report with pay book in hand.
Even before the news of the decision had reached all ranks, men could be seen taking off their boots and surplus uniform tied them in a bundle suspended on a bamboo pole over their shoulders and were soon disappearing into the distance.
This event had a very strange effect on me and I believe on the other officers as well. There was a tremendous feeling of relief at the sudden absence of responsibility and worry; I became conscious now of my own personal condition. I was filthy, unshaven and almost in rags, thirsty and literally starving. As I had seen it in others I could now see it in myself. These conditions had contributed to a rapid decrease in my mental state, and my susceptibility to illness. From then on I cannot recall much with complete certainty, and am now still unable to really separate fact from fiction. During the final stages of the trek my memory was blurred and my mind progressively invaded by hallucinations and doubt.
It’s funny but for this reason I am really unable to end my account of my experiences in Burma in 1941/42. The story doesn’t have a clear end, but I have assembled a few incidents of the last stage of the trek which I believe, having talked to others who survived, to be factual.
A small group of us struggled on and eventually made it to the Naga Hills. Although I did not know it I had contacted malaria. I dimly recall regaining consciousness somewhere in the jungle and someone squeezing a white creamy liquid down my throat. It reminded me of the times as a schoolboy I would press the stem of a dandelion and watch the sap ooze out. To
confirm that the monsoon was not far away I was certainly conscious of the discomfort caused by the cold damp mist as we clambered up and over the Naga Hills. One night I think I awoke on a barren hillside shivering from the cold, and could
distinctly hear two Scots voices whispering to each other not far away. I could not make out what they were saying and called out. There was no reply, except the rustle of the undergrowth as they slipped away into the night.
The meeting point of two memoirs
I remember trudging along a cart track somewhere in the hills probably not too far away from the end of my journey, when I saw a jeep approaching. Seated beside the driver was an officer with red tabs. He got out of the jeep and asked me a few questions. I do not know what he said to me, but from photos and documents I believe this man to have been General Alexander. Perhaps his memoirs will recall a soldier dressed in rags, starved and diseased, stumbling a long a cart track, for that was I.
End of the road but not the story:
By keeping moving and staying alive our small party made it to Tamu, where I was put in a truck, and I remember the name of Imphal being mentioned, but I am not sure. I do remember finding myself in the officers mess of the Assam Rifles in Kohima. I had done it, I had reached the town of Dimapur in the Indian state of Manipur, the railhead town for Calcutta.
Here I realised that my little group was not alone. There were in fact thousands of people who had made it out over the Naga Hills. Military personnel in clean well starched uniforms were milling around trying to introduce some sort of order. Tents littered the scene and the weather was overcast and cold. Eventually I reported, and was conscious of being asked innumerable questions. In the absence of the OC I was taken to be in command, and I recall there being talk of disciplinary action against me even court marshal or a court of inquiry, for failing to produce my unit and equipment intact. I answered honestly and with dignity, but even in the state I was in I could see that the officers of the court had absolutely no idea of what was happening east of the Naga Hills. After all I had been through and all I had seen it was not the reception I would ever have expected.
By way of consolation a number of our sappers located me, including the Sikh havildar who had knowledge of my friend from Scotland whose home I had visited in Rangoon. Odd things happen; it turned out that the night we went to his house the havildar had taken the big silver tray from my friend’s house and had put in his pack. He had carried it out of Burma and had returned it to my friend in Dimapur. As a coincidence, much later I just happened to be reading the Scotsman, when I noticed the announcement of the death of my friend in the obituary column. I went to his funeral and wondered if anyone else remembered Bob Elliot.
I think I convinced an MO that I was fit and received a rail pass to Bombay, with orders to report to the depot of the Indian Engineers. Anyway a small group of the old Company attached themselves to me and we set off on the first part of the journey to Bombay, the rail journey to Calcutta, several hundred miles away. On arrival at Sealdah station in Calcutta, I was relieved of my lORs and made my way to home of an American business colleague of mine, on the way to his flat I was struck by the attitude of the European community towards me. It must have been a Saturday night because all were dressed in evening dress bound for dinner and dancing at Firpo’s. I was looked upon as some kind of strange specimen from another world.
How I thought, could they be so ignorant of what was really happening not really so far away from where they were standing. It was as though the image before my eyes was surreal.
My friend made me welcome, although I felt unwell and sometimes dizzy. I remember seeing simple things like toilet paper and regarding them as luxuries. Perhaps this brush with civilisation was too much for I collapsed in his apartment and regained consciousness two days later in a military hospital. Needless to say I had malaria and probably a few other things too. I spent some weeks in that hospital and have no regrets about being discharged, and being back in uniform, back with my boots and ground sheet again. In 1943 I headed east again but that is another story.
The spirit does not die:
History books will give many accounts of the retreat to Mandalay, Scottish pipe music will make eternal the “Heroes of Kohima” and the Chindwin River, the Bridge over the River Kwai will be visited by tourists, but as someone who was there, my final and long-lasting memory is of finding, somewhere on the road out of Burma, a young soldier from the Cameronians. He could not have been over twenty years of age. He was lost, frightened and starving. He had no rifle and was in tears. I gave him what reassurance I could, and perhaps the strength to keep going just one more time.
But I don’t know what happened to him.
Major Ronald James Anderson was an active member of the Burma Star Association in Edinburgh where he died on the 10th March 1995. He encouraged the enjoyment and playing of pipe music especially amongst the children, and was a well known figure in piping both in Scotland and in Europe. “James” Anderson was proud to serve in the British Army and because they never die, will always remain a true Scottish Soldier. Stand Sure.