AFTER the collapse of Japanese resistance at the approaches to Tiddim, Wallace's Dogras encountered but little opposition, and soon reached the fifth milestone beyond the town. Here the road swung sharply left and ran along a ridge for eight miles to Vital Corner. Already the 3/2nd Punjab, operating on the flank, had secured positions on this very narrow ridge that was our sole route to Kennedy Peak, now that Colonel Appleby's battalion was blocked on Sialum Vum.
The 3/2nd had on October 4 occupied the ridge of Valvum, due east from Tiddim, and two days later seized Point 5955. That the enemy considered this hill important was shown by the tenacity with which he attacked our positions there on three separate occasions, each time with greater numbers. The third assault, staged on the 12th by some eighty Japanese soldiers, supported by artillery, medium machine-guns and grenades, failed after an hour's conflict, during which the Japanese evacuated half their number wounded, and left a score of dead on the slopes.
In the next few days patrols of the battalion raided the ridge at various points, and shot up enemy lorries moving along the road. On October 20 a road-block was established near Milestone 8. Next day the 3/2nd Punjab captured the Dimlo Inspection Bungalow a mile farther on. And by the time the Dogras were ready for further operations, the road had been cleared to within a mile of Vital Corner, where enemy positions had been brushed and located. Meantime, the 2/1st Punjab, facing Vital Corner from the misty heights of Sialum Vum, had not been lacking in offensive vigour.
If no attempt had so far been made to go round the Japanese block to the east, towards the cliffs by Vital Corner, it was because this approach looked more difficult from the map than any of the other routes. But the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Captain J. Arthur, reconnoitred on four separate occasions with his section, seeking a possible line of advance. On the last day he found a route that appeared feasible. Colonel Appleby sent out Major S. Edwards' company to cut a track that ran down to below Kennedy Peak. The chosen route was all but impossible for troops laden with equipment, arms and ammunition, yet somehow they managed to reach their position after a struggle that lasted five hours. It is some indication of the precipitous nature of these hills that a line party that went with the company laid out only two miles of cable during that time.
On October 25 Appleby decided to assault the main Japanese defences on Sialum Vum. From Jamshed Hill 'D' Company (Major Gian Chand) were to launch a diversionary attack, while the principal assault was left to 'A' and 'C' Companies from the north-east. This attack was soon held up by intense enemy fire. But one platoon of 'D' Company, led by Subadar Ram Sarup Singh, did succeed in capturing part of the enemy position. As the forward section climbed the steep hillside it walked into savage fire from machine-guns sited in bunkers. Ram Sarup Singh at once led another section to charge the Japanese defences. This sudden action bewildered the enemy soldiers, who fled from their bunkers, and were severely mauled in the course of their retreat. The Subadar had been wounded in both legs, but took no care for his hurt. Instead, he consolidated the position gained, only to see the Japanese attacking from the flank in three waves of twenty men. Heavy fire from enemy grenade dischargers had just knocked out one of his Bren guns, and the man on the gun was dead.
It seemed that nothing could now prevent the overrunning of the Punjabi platoon, and the Japanese shouted in Urdu, "Don't fire." But Ram Sarup Singh took no notice. He set up another machine-gun and led a charge against the advancing enemy. He was gravely wounded in the thigh. He fell down on the grass. He stood up, ignoring his wounds, and sprang again at the enemy. To his platoon he shouted words of encouragement and courage. At the enemy he flung words of abuse and hatred. No sooner had the Subadar bayoneted one Japanese soldier and shot another than he was himself mortally wounded in the chest and neck by a burst of fire from a medium machine-gun. With his last breath Ram Sarup Singh shouted out to his havildar, "I am dying, but you carry on and finish the devils."
By drawing upon himself much of the enemy's fire, the gallant Subadar had enabled the supporting platoon of 'D' Company to concentrate its fire on the counter-attacking enemy, and the remnants of our forward sections were extricated. But the attack had to be abandoned, and all three companies were withdrawn.
Before the action Subadar Ram Sarup Singh had shaken hands with his Company Commander and said: "Sahib, either the Japs or myself today." At first sight Ram Sarup Singh's appearance was not remarkable. He looked frail, and in his shoulders there was a suggestion of deformity. But those who were tempted to recall that he had but recently been a Pay Naik were reassured when they talked to the Subadar. To them he would reveal his true self, and his eyes became alight with enthusiasm, while his voice vibrated with eagerness. So profound had been the effect of his example upon the men that when volunteers were called for to bring in his body under the heaviest possible fire, the entire company volunteered. The Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded to Subadar Ram Sarup Singh for his skilful leadership and inspiring bravery in this desperate engagement against heavy odds.
161 Brigade, less the 1/1st Punjab who were engaged near Dolluang, was charged with the task of moving across country in a wide right hook, south through Mualbem and then across eastwards to cut the track between Falam and Kalemyo near Milestone 33. Here they would establish a base and prepare to operate north towards Fort White and the ridge between there and Kennedy Peak. While Nine Brigade drove south from Kennedy Peak, the 1/1st Punjab were to try and come in from the east to the road near Milestone 22.
By the last day of October 161 Brigade was ready in Mualbem. Only five miles of the track south from the main road had proved jeepable. The shortage of mules was serious, the ground very steep. At a bridge over one stream, where only a single mule could pass at a time, the unhitching and subsequent rehitching of groups of mules wasted hours. And as the first week of November came and went, the men of the Royal West Kents and 4/7th Rajputs struggled over hills, along tracks, beside torrents, through jungle, always heading for the road. They strove to discover where the enemy was, to conceal their presence in force, to arrive with the suddenness and success of surprise. The route was precarious, the men grew exhausted, and the mules were overworked, if not overburdened.
Events now moved rapidly. Kennedy Peak and Vital Corner were bombed with great weight. The range vanished in a pall of smoke and dust, from whose midst resounded the explosion of bombs. High into the cloudless sky rose the smoke, far across the hills echoed the sound of the bombardment. Escape routes to the north and east had been blocked by the 2/1st Punjab. Binnie's 3/9th Jats had moved across country from Dimlo, down into the valley, up on to the next ridge, and so had climbed to cut the road behind Kennedy Peak at Milestone 19. Then a brilliant piece of reconnaissance by a subadar and one sepoy from the 3/2nd Punjab led to the discovery of a way up the almost vertical position to Milestone 14, just at the back of the enemy holding Vital Corner.
Up this difficult route clambered one company under Major R. Groome. The enemy was surprised. Fighting continued during that night, when the Japanese counter-attacked ferociously. Groome's Punjabis held fast, and heard enemy vehicles driving past towards the south. The retreat was on, the enemy was pulling out, and when daybreak tipped the hills with light, on, November 3, Kennedy Peak and Vital Corner were ours for the taking.
Nine Brigade now took the lead and pursued the Japanese. The Jats were already in position. The 4th Jammu and Kashmir Infantry went forward to what was their first major engagement with the enemy. The infantry went on alone, with supporting guns and tanks. Behind, the road was congested. Mines were being lifted, and the police had made a single way for traffic. Nine Brigade was moving up, mules and linemen, dispatch riders and ambulances, brigadiers and staff officers, ammunition trucks and a score of jeeps---all these bid for priority in the wake of the advance. It was ever the same. After a hook or two hooks behind the enemy, and a subsequent withdrawal of the Japanese, there was haste to catch up with the forward troops. Urgency was in the air. Success lightened men's faces. A new stage had been reached.
There were smashed bunkers to be seen, as well as piles of Japanese shells, rice, picks and shovels, graves, and unburied corpses. There among the immense bomb craters and disintegrated bunkers stretched the dead, proclaimed by the bitter smell that was so familiar to a soldier's nostrils. And even that smell was a sign of success. The sunshine of the first days of November made the monsoon seem like a far-away memory of mud and rain. The road had dried up, the ruts were hard, the grass slopes glossy. On the ridge grew many great trees. And from their branches hung festoons of creepers thickly covered with dark green moss. The effect, in darkness was at once grotesque and frightening. From the great height of Kennedy Peak men could look back and see the road as it followed the ridge past Dimlo. Tiddim was visible in the middle distance, its red houses framed in white parachutes. And steep down at their feet the soldiers saw hamlets of which the only sign was a bare patch of soil, the curling blue smoke from a chimney or a woodman's fire, and a dozen thatched huts.
These splendid views of hills and valleys as far as the eye could see were a joy each day as the Division advanced along the ridge from Kennedy Peak. On November 6 Salomons sent the Jammu and Kashmir Infantry to attack a hill known as Elephant. But before the companies moved up the grass slopes, Hurricanes droned over, dived sharply, and bombed the enemy positions. Earth and stones and limbs erupted through the smoke. The chatter of bullets and the greater crump of landing bombs reached the ears of the waiting troops of the Gunners, of all who were engaged in this assault. It was a terrifying spectacle, this hail of fire and metal upon a hilltop. It seemed that no man could withstand the onslaught, however deep his trenches, however strong and cunning his bunkers. Nor did the Japanese remain to fight it out. When the sepoys stalked forward, they found the enemy gone, and ruin smoked on Elephant.
On the next afternoon the Jammu and Kashmir Infantry fought their way, this time against opposition, through the mist of clouds on to Point 8225, a mile farther south. This hilltop, too, had been bombarded, and so devastating had been the attack that no inch of the once grassy summit was not transformed into craters of upturned soil, or loose mounds, or caved-in bunkers. As the men hurriedly dug their trenches, in case of counter-attack, they stumbled over a veritable series of pits and giant mole hills. Clouds concealed the view on every side. Indeed, it was impossible even to see the hill that had just been captured, so dense was the swirling mist. And the muffled sounds of voices, of digging, the clink of shovels, the clatter of ammunition boxes being stacked on the ground, made this an eerie sight. The men felt the chill at 8,000 feet, now that the sun did not shine through. They wore sweaters against the cold, and still were not warm. At night, however warm the day might be, the cold was intense. The mosquitoes no longer buzzed, but blankets were few enough.
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Immediately ahead nestled what remained of Fort White---named after Sir George White, V.C., defender of Ladysmith---lower down in a wide crescent of the hill range. The cold mist hid the ruined huts, and on the hillside lay beams, and strips of corrugated iron, and broken brickwork.
The enemy had gone right back now, and it was near Fort White that patrols of the 4th Jammu and Kashmir Infantry met patrols from the 4/7th Rajputs. This occurred on November 8.
Now Tiddim was out of sight, though Denholm-Young's 123 Brigade still guarded the hospital and supply dumps there. And casualties were being flown out each day to Tamu from the little airstrip at Saizang, 3,000 feet above sea level, six miles south of Tiddim, and the only possible site on the hilltops. It had taken the Sappers, with three bulldozers, nearly a week to construct a landing strip 750 yards in length. Three more nursing sisters were flown in, and a hundred casualties evacuated in Auster aircraft.
But what was behind was also the past, and a new view spread itself before the eager eyes of the troops. Beyond the jungle-clad mountainsides that dropped abruptly thousands of feet to the valley of the Myittha River which flowed into the Chindwin at Kalewa; beyond the paddy fields that surrounded Kalemyo; beyond the patches of forest in the lush valley---far, far beyond, lay the, Chindwin and the Irrawaddy, and the plain of Central Burma. Behind rose the green, tree-studded hills that had just been captured. Ahead, fading into the distant haze, lay the real Burma that had still to be reconquered from the Japanese. If the distance to Mandalay seemed appalling, how much longer was the route to Rangoon.
And if these cities were to be reached, no delay could be tolerated, no effort spared. Nor was there delay, or any slackening of the Division's impetus. 161 Brigade, having completed its long cross-country march from Mualbem, went forward where the road turns eastwards towards Kalemyo. Ahead lay Falam and Haka, the centres of the Chin Hills. Both these small towns had been found clear of Japanese by Brigadier Marindin's Lushai Brigade. It was to the two Stockades that the Rajputs and Royal West Kents, with their company of West Yorkshires, pushed on. Those who expected a wooden palisade and rifle slits were disappointed. At Number 2 Stockade---a clearing in the jungle where the road reached a stream---Grimshaw's 1/1st Punjab rejoined from its successful harassing of the retreating Japanese among the foothills between Kennedy Peak and the valley down which the 11th East African Division had been fighting its way all these months. A company of Cargill's Rajputs made touch with the East African askaris on November 12. Thus was achieved the object of this two-pronged drive through the monsoon, down the Tiddim Road and the Kabaw Valley.
Then progress was swift. Into the valley, down the almost countless bends of the road, down seven thousand feet, went the Rajputs, the Jats, Nine and 161 Brigades. Now at last men could drive at forty miles an hour in top gear, rather than lurch forward at little more than walking pace. The enemy had gone, but must be pursued relentlessly, both to the east down the Myittha Gorge towards Kalewa and the Chindwin, and southwards in the direction of Gangaw. Both Divisions sent out units to attack, to explore, to reconnoitre. The Air Force continued to attack every target notified by our troops below. The East Africans drove the Japanese down the Myittha Gorge, and fought stern engagements on the way. The 3/9th Jats went south. The 1/1st Punjab prepared to help the East Africans with diversionary attacks. But the rest of the two brigades, and Divisional Headquarters, settled near Kalemyo and Thazi.
At the entrance to Kalemyo stood a signpost at the cross-roads. Pointing back up the road a white arm showed Tiddim, 48 miles. To the right was Falam, 66 miles away. Straight ahead indicated a little place named Pyinthaseik on the banks-of the Myittha; while north went the dusty road towards Kalewa, 24 miles distant.
Kalemyo was a ruined township. The Burmese had fled from its crumbling walls to villages that were safe within the jungle, and the few Indian shopkeepers and moneylenders had gone the same way. Now the town lay deserted by its former inhabitants, and only nature grew apace among the ruins. The roads were overgrown with weeds. Trees and creepers stretched up to the broken windows, and the splintered balconies were vanishing beneath tall undergrowth. And this same undergrowth concealed the roofs that had fallen down , and the rubble caused by bomb and shell. A moat, now derelict and thick with weeds, surrounded this town, which had become like this during the two years since the Japanese first came inside its walls.
But with the arrival of the Division a new life hummed within Kalemyo. Jats, Rajputs and Punjabis pitched their little tents between one tumbled house and another, and the smoke of cooking-fires curled over the ruins and vanished among the trees of the nearby jungle. Shouts echoed in the town, and sepoys picked their way through long grass and fallen bricks. And here at last the scene more closely resembled the Burma that had been imagined, for great effigies of the squatting Buddha stared impassively across to the .slender white pagodas that were to become so familiar a part of the Burmese landscape. A few had escaped without a scar, but more. often their white surface had been chipped.
The Division did not linger in this green and beautiful valley, or in the comfort of wooden houses in the villages close to Kalemyo. The existence of peaceful rest---bathing and fishing in streams, eating and drinking, washing clothes, and lying out in the sunshine that bathed this small corner of Burma-was soon ended. For the Sappers constructed an airstrip, and in the last week of November and in early December the Division was flown back to Imphal. The transport and mules went up the Kabaw Valley, by way of Tamu and Palel.
The monsoon had ended. The Fourteenth Army was moving in all its strength for the recapture of Central Burma and the crossing of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy. Mandalay was the immediate goal, though the road to Mandalay was not that of Kipling. Other divisions were on the move. A brigade of the 20th Indian Division relieved the Fifth, which settled in tents high in the Naga Hills round Maram, south of Kohima.
The Division had earned its rest. It had been fighting without break for fourteen months. In the course of its advance down the Tiddim Road it had killed 1,316 Japanese---fresh corpses counted on the ground. It had wounded 533, who were actually seen being helped away from the battlefield, and had taken fifty-three prisoners. Our own losses during that period had been eighty-eight officers and men killed, 293 wounded, and twenty-two missing. This had been an outstanding advance in the face not only of an enemy fighting a stiff rearguard action over nearly two hundred miles, but of very serious diseases, the worst furies of the monsoon, mud and steep places on a tortuous road, and a host of administrative difficulties.
The Division had earned its rest. But the men guessed that the rest would be short-lived. They were right.
DURING December the Division lived five thousand feet up among the Naga Hills, resting, training, and re-equipping. At night the cold was intense, but the views by day were remarkable and never palled. To the west rose great hills behind which the afternoon sun sank early. But to the east the eye could see far across terraced hillsides, villages built on promontories, and valleys often filled with mist. You gazed across these to hills and other valleys that rose and fell on and on to the distant horizon, and far beyond.
The black tar ribbon of the Dimapur-Imphal road wound among these hills, and the Division's camps were on the roadside, in tents or under huge tarpaulins stretched on a wooden framework. The Nagas, picturesque and colourful in their scarlet or black and green blankets, were to be seen chipping stones beside the road, or walking with the gait of hill people up and down the slopes.
Christmas 1944 was spent in this beautiful setting. But then, because of supply problems, the Division moved again, this time farther north to Jorhat beside the Brahmaputra River. In winter this flowed by many branches round islands and between long stretches of white sand flats tufted with long grass. Inland, beyond the paddy fields, the patches of jungle, and the untidy villages, lie the tea gardens, acres of little close-trimmed, flat-topped bushes laid out beneath slender-branched 'shade trees.'
Outside Jorhat the Division set up a new camp in open green fields. Tents were pitched, flagposts erected, signboards and fences painted and installed. Smartness prevailed, and for the first time since Quetta Camp outside Baghdad two years before, the Division gathered together in a great cantonment of tents. Once again flags and pennants fluttered above the white tents. Once again inspections, conferences, office work, the dispatch of leave parties, the listing of stores deficiencies, and the training of reinforcements were the order of the day. But no smoke from drip-flash stoves blackened the camp.. No loose-wallahs prowled through the camps under the shield of darkness. The dust was scanty until the main tracks became stripped of grass and churned up by the to-and-fro of trucks and jeeps, lorries and marching feet.
The Division was no longer to operate with mules. Two of its brigades were to be fully motorized. Nine Brigade was designated for an air-landing role. The animal transport companies and the unit mules went away, and jeeps and trailers and four-wheel-drive 15-cwt. trucks took their place. The Divisional strength in transport rose overnight by nearly 2,000 vehicles.. All these had to. be collected, and issued to units. To find drivers for this influx of vehicles taxed the skill and ingenuity of every unit, the training of these drivers, and the painting of numbers and Divisional flashes on the front and back of every vehicle, occupied many hours each day.
Concert parties came to entertain the troops, mobile cinemas gave shows football matches were organized. A race meeting on the Jorhat track was an outstanding success, and so were parties given by the Division to the Assam tea planters and their wives, who had made members of the Division so very welcome with generous hospitality in their homes and clubs.
While the Division was resting in reserve, in the Naga Hills, and near Jorhat, the advance into Burma across the Chindwin by Messervy's Four and Stopford's Thirty-Three Corps was at once rapid and spectacular. Shwebo had been entered on January 7 and the first crossing of the Irrawaddy made two days later. By the third week of February four divisions and a tank brigade had crossed this great river and established bridgeheads on the east bank at widely different points. These bridgeheads had been fiercely attacked by the Japanese, but had been held against every assault. North of Mandalay the 19th Indian Division, led by Major-General Rees, whom we have met as commander of Ten Brigade in Eritrea, had crossed the Irrawaddy. West of Mandalay crossings had been made by the 2nd British and 20th Indian Divisions. And to the south-west, between Pakokku and Pagan, the Seventh Indian Division, commanded by Major-General Geoffrey Evans, had struck across to hold the eastern bank. And, behind, the 17th Indian Division waited in reserve.
The Japanese fought hard to contain us in our bridgeheads, and rushed troops from other fronts to attempt to destroy our forces. The fighting was bitter and prolonged, the casualties serious, the odds at first heavy. Both sides suffered many casualties, but gradually the bridgeheads were extended, and supplies and reserves built up for a break-through. Across the river were ferried men, weapons and transport, in readiness for a drive on Mandalay and Meiktila. And it was to balance the strength of the opposing forces and to ensure every chance of routing and destroying the enemy that the Fifth Indian Division was hurriedly re-equipped, despite the greatest administrative problems to be overcome in the process. General Slim needed a sixth division without delay, to help oppose the seven enemy divisions that were being reinforced hurriedly from other parts of Burma.
Early in February orders had been received from Fourteenth Army that the Division must be ready to enter the battle of Central Burma on March 15. General Warren, with his new G.S.O.1, Lieutenant-Colonel P. S. Pryke, flew south to Kalemyo to confer at Army Headquarters. They were to be briefed as to the future employment of the Division. On February 17th they set off on their return flight. The small aircraft vanished among the hills. Its occupants were reported missing and were never found.
This was a grievous blow to the Division,. a piece of news that shocked everyone who heard it. Gloom and a sense of personal loss prevailed, for Warren---first of the Divisional Commanders to be killed---had been held in warm affection.
The troops knew him as "Daddy" Warren, or as "Freddie" Warren. His hair had greyed, deep lines ran across his face, he wore spectacles. If at first sight he did not seem to be awe-inspiring, or typical of the senior Army officer, but more like a farmer, your first impression was certainly one of a real human being. Characteristic were his slow, deliberate way of speaking, his dry Irish sense of humour, the merry twinkle in his eyes, and his companionable pipe.
If the British troops of the Division liked and respected him, the Indians adored him. He never passed anyone without talking to him. Though in the company of his colonels and staff, Warren would break off the conversation to speak to a Punjabi muledriver, to a West Kent stretcher-bearer, to a group of Sikh Sappers. For the humblest jawan Warren had a friendly smile, an encouraging word of cheer. He greeted a private soldier, not as a toy of war, but as another human being. His memory for names was astonishing; and his unusual fluency in Urdu and Punjabi gained him a closer touch with the Indian troops than would otherwise have been possible. Moreover, he could make jokes that were understood and appreciated by the jawan.
To work for him was a pleasure, because he knew exactly what he wanted and always gave a decisive answer to his commanders and staff. They found him approachable, for he made time to see them. His brain was as shrewd in administration as it was in operations. He was sure of himself, and prepared to back himself and his men to the hilt. He had faith in those under him, and the gift of making them feel this confidence. He gave an impression of slowness that deceived some men, but once he had made his decisions he would act swiftly, and was prepared to take a risk that had been calculated and deemed justified. But he would not be hurried by the highest in the land. He believed in the motto of "More haste, less speed," and would often say, before coming to a decision, "Let's think the problem out first."
And he had a habit of suggesting a plan of action to his junior commanders, rather than giving them an inflexible order that might seem meaningless. In this way he took them into his confidence and inspired deep loyalty. His troops felt that whatever orders he gave would ensure success with the minimum casualties, and that he would never push them into a disaster.
He knew no fear, and in a tight spot he was an inspiration to all those around him. His bravery and enthusiasm infected his Brigade and his Division; he was never seen to be ruffled or excited. Even when the tide of battle was at its roughest, he remained cool on the surface. Indeed, he was at his best when faced with the utmost difficulties, and did not let the burden of adversity bear him down. His strong temper he kept perfectly under control, and many have commented how he never spoke out of turn to his subordinates, however exasperating, though he could be outspoken and challenging to his seniors when he disagreed with their policy, or when the situation warranted it. He was always prepared to hold out against what he considered ill-advised decisions.
During a battle Warren was invariably well forward, dropping in on a battalion, company or even platoon headquarters with his friendly manners and dry humour. Commanders loved to have him in the forward areas, for he did not interfere, though a word of advice was ready if needed. He would arrive on a captured position before it had been consolidated, and start to plan the next move ahead.
Despite his age and corpulence, he was a tremendous walker, and he clambered up and down hills in Arakan, by Kohima, and down the road through Tiddim to Kennedy Peak and Fort White with amazing speed and energy. One officer of the Royal West Kents recalls how, in a very exposed position in Arakan, Warren arrived on the very first day after we had occupied the feature. He said, with his gay twinkle, that he was walking round the walls of Jericho. Then, in full view of the enemy, down a gully between the two leading companies, where no man had ventured except running and crouching, Brigadier Warren walked without haste. And the sight of him there braced the infantry and gave them good heart. Always he carried a long staff to help him up the slopes, he wore a wide-brimmed bush hat, and his hands, when they were not holding or filling his pipe, were stuck in a very loose web belt and holster.
It was ironic, perhaps, that Warren, who had been born in Japan where his father was a missionary, should be fighting the Japanese. But he knew his enemy thoroughly, and his decisions about them were right. Sometimes his predictions, to the exact time and place, long before they occurred and before others were prepared, seemed uncanny. It was in 1917 that he transferred to the Indian Army, after two years' service with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He and Brigadier Salomons had been together, in the 34th Royal Sikh Pioneers, building roads in Waziristan. When the Pioneers were disbanded he transferred to the 8th Punjab Regiment, worked in the translation section at Army Headquarters in India for four years, and attended the Staff College at Camberley under protest, being afraid that he might end his days as a 'chairborne' soldier. In 1940 he raised the 6th Battalion of his regiment, Warren's Foot.
He was a versatile man, shrewd, widely read, gifted with an outstanding memory. Conscientious and methodical by nature, he worked at his languages, won prizes for short stories and military essays, and intended one day to take up writing seriously. If he was not athletic like so many soldiers, he was fond of riding, despite several nasty falls; he loved a game of golf as this did not interfere with his pipe, and he looked forward to the day when he would go sailing. The social life peculiar to the Army in India did not attract him, for all his friendly disposition. His ambition was to do a good job of work in India and then retire to the peace of a country home where he might read and write and make things in wood. But that was not to be. Instead he died at the height of his career, planning the new role for his Division whose confidence and affection he had so richly won during the eighteen months he had served with it.
Brigadier Salomons took over the Division for a few days, and then, at a moment when the troops were preparing to re-enter the battle and when a leader who knew and was. known by the Division would be invaluable, General Mansergh was posted to command. He had only recently taken over the 11th East African Division, and their loss became our gain. Mansergh was a veteran of the Fifth Indian Division, he had commanded it temporarily on many occasions when Briggs or Evans had been away or ill, and now he returned where he belonged.
"Bob" Mansergh had served with 144 Field Regiment (Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry) during the campaign in Eritrea and Abyssinia four years back. When he went to command the Royal Artillery Depot at Almaza near Cairo, he widened still further a knowledge of Gunner officers which he had built up while adjutant .of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich before the war. He had been born in South Africa, and spent the first years of his life there. Training in diplomacy had come his way when he served on the Military Mission to Iraq as a captain. It is told how he wanted to go north to the border to paint and sketch. No leave was obtainable to do this, as the area was politically verboten. But Mansergh went without leave, only to be caught by the Kurds and cast into a prison cell. He denied that he was an army officer, and claimed to be a school teacher on holiday. He gave a fictitious name. This was cabled to London, where all knowledge of him was naturally denied. After several days of discomfort, when convinced that it was his only course, Mansergh confessed.
As a Gunner he was among the most capable, as a C.R.A. he was unsurpassed, both in the skill with which he managed his regiments, the unbounded confidence that he aroused in successive Divisional Commanders, and the admirable relationship he established between his officers and the infantry battalions they supported. He had been C.R.A. for more than two years, and then, being told that this would be his only avenue to higher promotion, he had gone as second in command of a brigade with the Seventh Indian Division. At the end of the Tiddim Road campaign, General Slim had sent for Mansergh, told him that he had no brigade that he could give him to command. Then, as though by an afterthought, to assuage very evident disappointment, Slim added that he was entrusting the command of the 11th East African Division to him.
Mansergh was a man of commanding presence, great height, and massive build. His manners were polished, his bearing at once urbane and impressive. His innate, sincere charm was famous, for he went out of his way to make others feel at ease, because, perhaps, he liked to be at ease himself. Characteristic was his treatment of regimental officers who visited 'A' Mess at Divisional Headquarters. They were likely to feel overawed at entering this group of senior officers, but from the moment of Mansergh's entry all shyness was forgotten. He would insist upon your sitting near him, and he was one of those few people who make you want to talk of your own interests. As one Gunner officer commented long afterwards, "What boring hours he must have endured listening to us all."
This same officer recalled that once, happily, the General spent a night with his regiment. 'I remember asking him which, of all the men he had met, he would most prefer to dine with. His answer was unhesitating: "The Duke of Aosta and Lord Louis Mountbatten."
To the Gunners of the Division Mansergh seemed almost their personal property, for he knew all the officers by their Christian names; he had been the welcome guest of almost every troop, battery and regimental mess at one time or another; and his unfailing tact, patience, and outstanding competence were widely known and respected.
His judgment of men was as admirable as were his confidential reports on them. Two particular gems have been recorded: "Geared low but pedals hard," and "I should hesitate to breed from this officer." One regimental commander, describing General Mansergh's amazing capacity for being able to call a man by his name---one of the secrets of his success---added that Mansergh knew more of the men of this particular regiment by name than ever did its commander, even at the end of his. period of command.
He was artistic, loved music, and painted or sketched; Alice in Wonderland travelled in his kit through the campaigning years; he watched natural life with keen interest; he collected Persian carpets and rugs, and when in Baghdad would spend hours in the bazaars bargaining like an expert.
He could enter into everything easily without ever losing his dignity, whether it was visiting a troops' mess on Christmas Day or sitting unobtrusively on a bench at the back of the tent during a Toc H meeting in Baghdad or at some lecture. Or, by contrast, he was an ideal introducer to such a lecturer as Freya Stark, and a chairman of ease and tact. Though he was good at smoothing down the indignant and irate, he was also able, without becoming angry. to make those who had displeased him feel unutterable worms and vow that they would never again incur such an interview. Where any problem arose over a man's pay or his reputation, Mansergh took time and the greatest pains with detail to examine the question. Humane and attentive to paperwork, friendly to every rank, he was in battle a bold and imperturbable commander. And when a soldier needed to be a diplomat, as will be seen later in this history, he had the gifts required.
MEIKTILA, eighty miles south of Mandalay on the main road and railway to Rangoon, was a vital centre of communications for Central Burma. It was, too, an area devoted to Japanese supply depots, base hospitals and maintenance units. The town was of the utmost importance to the Japanese in their battles to prevent Slim's Fourteenth Army from. crossing the Irrawaddy, and in the defence of the Mandalay front. To capture Meiktila would for us be a fruitful blow in the enemy's rear. We should sit astride his lines of communication, his lines of supply, and, perhaps, too, his eventual lines of retreat from the north.
And so, having once crossed the Irrawaddy, by the bridgehead secured and held by Evans' Seventh Indian Division, the 17th Indian Division (Major-General D. T. Cowan), supported by 255 Tank Brigade, moved east from Pakokku, captured Taungtha on February 24 in the face of determined resistance, brushed aside opposition down the road leading through Mahlaing, seized an important airfield, to which the Division's airborne brigade was flown, and assaulted Meiktila itself.
The Japanese, surprised by this invasion of what they thought to be a back area, hurriedly mustered their forces, which were larger than we had anticipated. To defend the town they fought with tenacity and fanatical recklessness. Hand-to-hand fighting lasted for a week. Enemy posts had to be evicted from one house after another. Many quarters of Meiktila were reduced to ruin. It was a battle in which the Japanese held out in small groups in their cellars and dugouts. The defence was unco-ordinated if savage, and by March 4 the men of Cowan's Division had captured the larger part of the town.
If our thrust had been rapid and decisive, the reactions of a startled enemy were no less swift and vigorous. This enemy had to regain the town at all costs. And he spared no effort to do so. The roads were cut, Taungtha was recaptured, the 5,000 soft vehicles of the Division and Tank Brigade blocked from reaching Meiktila. Above all, the Japanese sought to gain the airstrip on which all our supplies were landed, two miles north-east of the town. The pressure increased for the enemy outnumbered our troops in Meiktila. General Slim's nearest reserves were the Fifth Indian Division, still at Jorhat; but Jorhat was seven hundred miles away. And so it was that Salomons' Nine Brigade, which had trained for an airborne role, was ordered to be flown in to reinforce the defenders of Meiktila. This was no passive defence. Its very nature was offensive, for, daily, strong columns of tanks and infantry sallied out to break up enemy troop concentrations before these could attack the town.
Dakotas began to fly in the Brigade on March 15. Brigadier Salomons has recorded how he attended the briefing of the American pilots who were to fly in part of the Brigade next day. "Half an hour after the briefing conference was due to start some of the pilots had still not returned from that day's sorties. But the briefing officer said he could not wait for them and indicated that those present would just have to pass on the orders later to the others. Occasionally the briefing officer said casually that it might help to take a note of this (this being a bearing to fly on after crossing a certain line, or the altitude to be adhered to on certain stretches of the run). As the pilots jotted these figures down on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper, those of us listening all hoped that our own pilot would be one of those receiving this information at first hand and not from a pal some hours later."
On the first day fifty-four sorties were made from Palel airstrip. Salomon's Tactical Headquarters and the 3/2nd Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel Lakhinder Singh) were the first to arrive. The flight was uneventful across the Irrawaddy and the dusty, hot-looking plain of Central Burma. How sharp a contrast this buff landscape presented with the green, jungle-clad Mayu Range and Chin Hills! Gone were the cool and clouded summits, the awe-inspiring panoramas. From now on the men would see a country of slender white pagodas.
The planes started banking and, there below, the passengers saw Meiktila and its lakes. From the air these lakes appeared vividly blue, fringed with a luxurious green that quickly gave way to the vast outer belt of brown---the hot, scrubby plain. As the planes came in to land on the airfield some two miles out of the centre of the town towards the north-east, Japanese anti-aircraft guns fired. The troops could hear the sounds of battle on the ground above the roar of the planes' engines. They looked down at bursts of smoke on or around the airfield. And these sights and sounds surprised the men, who had expected that at least the landing would be easy. As the Dakotas touched down and roared across the airfield, their wheels put up clouds of dust. The American pilots shouted to our men to "get out quick, for God's sake!" They leaped to the ground.
The equipment was thrown out hurriedly. A fortunate lull in the firing occurred while the doors were open and the aircraft were being emptied. But the shelling was renewed while our troops were waiting to be told where to go. The pilots were splendid the way they helped to unload the planes and yet found time to photograph some of the dead Japanese lying round the airstrip, or to inquire if there were any enemy swords available. They did not waste a second, but turned round their planes and flew off.
Nine Brigade, or that part of it which arrived on the first day, went into what was known as 'D' Box---the main defence position outside the area held by the 17th Indian Division. The western edge of the airfield formed one side of the perimeter of this box. Here the ground was bare, flat as the Desert, studded with occasional bushes and trees. Leaving two companies in 'D' Box, the 3/2nd Punjab moved across to 'A' Box, lying due north of Meiktila beside the main road. On its own the battalion held an exposed ridge.
The entire Divisional artillery, concentrated as it was in a central position in Meiktila, could support all our defensive boxes. The tanks, too, were held centrally in the town area and sent out as they were needed.
During the next three days the rest of Nine Brigade arrived safely on the airstrip. The flying in had been speeded up because of the Japanese who were milling round the airstrip. Every day snipers were active and the enemy shelled both boxes. On the first day none of our aircraft had been hit, but one Dakota was destroyed-by fire on March 16 and six men were wounded while escaping from the plane.
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In 'D' Box, apart from Nine Brigade Headquarters, Bailey's 2nd West Yorkshires and two companies of the 3/2nd Punjab, there were certain miscellaneous units of the 17h 7th Indian Division, some R.A.F. ground staff, a large hospital, various stores dumps, and many vehicles.
The whole Box was crowded. Each of the many little bivouac tents, which were far too close together for safety, had a slit trench beside it into which the occupant could roll or jump when the shelling started. In between the mass of tents stood the vehicles: these had been dug down forward so that their engines were to some extent protected by the ground from intermittent shelling.
On the second night after the arrival of Nine Brigade a party of Japanese came on to the airfield. Lack of troops prevented us from holding a perimeter round the landing ground, although the enemy thought at first that we were doing so. Next morning the Japanese patrol was driven off so that our aircraft could continue to land, but during the next night a platoon arrived, and it took a West Yorkshire company more than an hour and a half to drive off the enemy. The Dakotas were held up. During daylight standing patrols guarded the airstrip. Then, on the fourth night, a whole Japanese company, supported by one gun, established itself on the airfield, having good cover in the low scrub between the runways. Two British companies, aided by tanks, fought until midday to remove the enemy. And so it went on, each day the situation growing worse, until it would take half a battalion, with tanks, to evict the Japanese, before our Dakotas could land with further units of Nine Brigade.
The Japanese guns approached nearer, and their gunners shot at the aircraft. They hit none, but the planes had to unload at very great speed, the American pilots helping to lift out the stores on to the dusty ground. When the Dakotas took off again straight away, using the very runway they had landed on, the Japanese fired from the north end of the airfield.
On March 23, the last day on which our planes were able to land, they had to be turned back in mid-air because the airfield was not cleared until two o'clock. This left only three hours for the planes to come in. As many as possible landed, for it was now realized that next day it would be impossible to clear off the Japanese. Most of our wounded were evacuated on these last few planes.
Brigade Headquarters was situated right on the edge of the Box. The command post was dug down in the shelter of earth walls that had been built previously to protect aircraft. A bamboo matting roof shielded the men from the sun. The signal office, the officers' mess, and the command post of the West Yorkshires, had also been dug underground. Inside it was pitch dark and stuffy, and lights from wireless batteries had to be kept on all day.
On March 22, to everyone's regret, Brigadier Salomons had left Meiktila, after a disagreement with General Cowan over the employment of Nine Brigade. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel K. Bailey, commanding the 2nd West Yorkshires. On the following day Bailey was standing in the approach trench to the Brigade command post with his Brigade Major, W. S. Armour. The Intelligence Officer, Captain Leslie-Smith, was standing between them. All three were studying a map. Suddenly a shell landed outside the command post: the Brigadier's batman was killed, and Armour was wounded in the arm and back. Bailey, a heavy man, being wounded in the back, aggravated his condition by falling backwards down the twelve steps that led into the command post. Leslie-Smith, too surprised to duck, was unscathed. Shell fragments that wounded his two companions passed on either side of him.
Armour was taken to the dressing station, and when this was shelled soon afterwards, he received a further slight wound. Then he was sent to the airstrip to be evacuated with the other wounded. As the last Dakota with wounded on board was warming up ready to take off, a Japanese anti-tank gun fired straight down the runway and set the plane alight. Some R.A.M.C. orderlies unloaded the burning aircraft. Armour had again been hit, badly this time, in the head. When all the wounded except him had been unloaded and the plane was blazing fiercely, the orderlies said "He's had it!" and discussed the need for removing the dead body from inside the Dakota. One of them said "Anyhow, you can't let the so-and-so burn. Let's take the body out."
Billy Armour heard this, but could not, speak. On being taken, outside, however, he indicated that he was still alive. That night he slept in a dressing station near the light aircraft strip, and was to be evacuated the following day in a light plane. As this strip had also been shelled, Armour was, not unnaturally, chary of lying about waiting his turn to be loaded. So he insisted on being placed in a small hole, and only when the other men were on board and the engine was running did he get off his stretcher and totter to the aircraft.
At six-thirty on the evening of March 24 the occupants of 'A' Box heard enemy tracked vehicles moving from west to east across their front. The same noise was then heard by 'B' Box away to the north-east of their position. When, at eight o' 'clock, a Japanese tank rumbled down the western runway, toured the airstrip twice and halted, our troops thought that it was a British tank and did not fire until too late. The tank made off towards the north-west. Soon after this several more tanks, supported by Japanese infantry and heralded by a heavy bombardment from six guns, pressed close towards the east side of 'B' Box. By clanking squeakily up and down the airfield for half an hour only fifty yards outside our wire, the first tank made some of the defenders uneasy. Later, it appeared near one of the Box's back exits which had been wired up for the night, and stopped within fifteen yards of the only two Bofors guns held in 'C' Box. An officer opened the turret and said something in very plain Japanese. Still no one fired. In the silence he realized that he had come to the wrong place and he and the tank dashed away untouched. No one fired even a parting shot at him. It was now clear that the tank's movements up and down the airfield, far from being aggressive, had merely indicated that the Japanese officer had lost his way.
Though enemy tanks knocked down a portion of the perimeter wire to prepare for an advance, the infantry supporting the tanks were held off by accurate artillery shelling and by machine-gun and rifle fire from the 3/2nd Punjab. The attack was continued in vain until dawn by the Japanese, and next day over twenty bodies were recovered. During the same night 'D' Box was attacked by jitter parties, who maintained their harassing activities until dawn, accompanied by shelling. Our men repulsed all these attacks without loss. Daylight revealed blood and equipment all over the place. But it also revealed the unpleasant fact that some thirty Japanese had dug themselves and an anti-tank gun into the aircraft bays. And this gun soon opened fire on 'D' Box, wounding a number of Indians as the day wore on. Our own mortars and field artillery were unable to damage the gun owing to its deep pit.
During the same day Brigadier H. G. L. Brain arrived to take over command of Nine Brigade from Colonel Younger, who had stepped into the breach when Brigadier Bailey was wounded. To replace Armour as Brigade Major came Major P. P. Steele, who had been Adjutant to the 2nd West Yorkshires for a considerable period. A further change occurred when Major J. A. E. Newell was promoted to command the 3/2nd Punjab in place of Lieutenant-Colonel Lakhinder Singh. Command of the West, Yorkshires devolved upon Major P. W. P. Green.
The next two days were fairly quiet except for intermittent shelling of ' B' and 'D' Boxes and occasional jitter parties and patrolling during the night. But after dark on March 27 the Japanese were extremely active along the whole Brigade front. They started at ten-thirty by attacking Newell's 3/2nd Punjab in 'B' Box with a platoon of infantry. They charged up to the wire, firing their every weapon.. The attack was beaten off. A West Yorkshire patrol moving towards Milestone 340 on the Mandalay Road was fired on by rifles and drew back, but was then mortared in the light of flares and had to scatter. Some returned to 'D' Box, others to 'B' Box; there were six casualties in all.
At midnight, sixty Japanese attacked 'C' Company of the Jammu and Kashmir Infantry, holding a position out at Milestone 342. For some days past our tanks and supply columns had been trying in vain to fight their way through to relieve this company, commanded by Major Harnam Singh. Now the men, already reduced to half-scale rations, were bombarded by three tanks which stood off a thousand yards away, firing into our positions with machine-guns and grenade dischargers. Then at two o'clock in the morning the Japanese tanks and infantry both closed in towards the company area, but did not press their attacks. Next day a sweep by our own tanks and a company of the West Yorkshires and another from the 3/2nd Punjab was made towards Milestone 342. But again this column failed to reach the Jammu and Kashmir company, being held up by extremely heavy fire from the village of Wathit, in which there were at least two hundred Japanese troops.
Each day the 17th Indian Division sent out a Gurkha battalion with guns and tanks to clear the villages outside Meiktila. These villages were often a mile in length, stretched out in a belt of trees. And it would take the greater part of a day to comb such villages. But these tactics brought good results, and the average number of Japanese killed during these sweeps approached two hundred. As there were comparatively few Japanese to the north and northwest of the town, most of these daily sweeps, which involved considerable fighting on a fierce scale, took place to the south and east of Meiktila. Nine Brigade itself had not enough troops to do more than hold on to its positions.
On the whole the Japanese were heavily damaged by the offensive sweeps and were kept away from Meiktila as a result. But on one night the Japanese did put in a heavy attack against a brigade of the 17th Division astride the road south of the town. It was a very strong wired position. About three hundred yards in front, on a lone mound the top of which was a cemetery, a platoon of the Jammu and Kashmir infantry was holding an isolated position. The hillock overlooked the approaches from the south. Its defenders, who had dug their trenches among the gravestones, would be able to warn the main brigade position if any enemy troops bumped against them during the night.
On this particular night they heard the sound of approaching troops. Though they did not know it at the time, this was a Japanese battalion moving to attack and occupy the airfield. The battalion, having lost its way, now arrived on the southern front. Part of the leading sections ran straight into the Indian platoon position. The attack was a mistake, and surprised the Japanese. While their left-hand party attacked the Jammu and Kashmir sepoys on their hillock, the remainder of the battalion charged forward in a mass and ran into the main 17th Division position. In pitch darkness the Japanese troops charged with screams and yells. Defensive fire by the divisional artillery and by local mortars was put down in front of the perimeter wire. The Japanese battalion was stopped. It suffered huge losses. Caught in the fire of artillery, mortars and criss-crossing medium machine-guns, the enemy soldiers were cut to pieces.
Until morning nobody knew quite what had happened, but with daylight the ground was seen to be littered with dead. Some two hundred and thirty bodies were counted; others had no doubt been carried away by the Japanese under the cloak of darkness. The bodies lay in swathes; you could see where five sections of eight or nine men marching in file had been caught by a machine-gun and had fallen in line. The wounded and the dead had been rewounded and terribly mutilated by the heavy fire which continued for more than forty minutes. Never had our troops seen dead who were so very dead. The bravest of all the enemy, perhaps, were a small party who heaved forward the battalion gun. When the firing first broke out they did not, as might have been expected, put the gun into position and fire hopefully ahead. Instead, the Japanese gunners started to run forward, carrying the ammunition and tugging their gun alongside the infantry; into the terrifying inferno they went; they reached a point ten yards from the wire, stopped there, and attempted to fire their gun. How many of the crew were still living at that moment will never be known, but during the next few seconds the Japanese gunners, without protection, were wiped out to a man. The gun was never fired. And at daybreak there lay the muzzle towards the British position, with its crew heaped about it.
Those who had attacked the cemetery mound had been repulsed and decimated with their companions. Several Japanese soldiers were found sprawling across the wire; while some had actually penetrated the Jammu and Kashmir defences and lay slumped across the tombstones. The few who still lived---and most of them had been wounded---stayed where they were, and sniped at our positions, until they were killed, one by one.
On March 30 an operation order was issued by the 17th Indian Division. 48 Brigade, having cleared a number of villages, was to operate eastwards along the road to Thazi as far as the seventh milestone, 99 Brigade would occupy the area of Nyaungbintha and Tamongan, while 63 Brigade with tanks operated north and east, of the town to contact the advancing troops of the 20th Indian Division. Nine Brigade, meanwhile, became responsible for the defence of Meiktila town north of the railway.
That night the airstrip was found to be clear. Next day, the last of the month, patrols all round the Nine Brigade area had nothing to report. For the first time in a week planes were able to land on the airstrip where previously the supply dropping zone had been.
It appeared that the Japanese, realizing they had no chance of recapturing Meiktila, had decided to withdraw eastwards towards Thazi and southwards towards Pyawbwe.
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