THE LOUD SILENCE
By now, Fergusson’s 16th Brigade was speed marching towards their objective area, but it was already behind schedule. Moving single file, they slashed through their way through engulfing jungle, over treacherous and poorly mapped hills in driving rain.
When they reached the site chosen to house “Aberdeen,” a mile north of the village of Manhton, the first units to arrive — elements of the Queens and the 2nd Leicestershires, went to work, putting down their guns in favor of shovels, machetes and pickaxes. Working by hand, the troops flattened the paddy and carved out a rudimentary airstrip.
Aberdeen began to take shape into a sprawling encampment divided by the Meza River in the Kalat Valley. For the troops, who had spent the last two months living the closed canopy of the jungle, their arrival in this beautiful, sun-drenched valley was like arriving in paradise. Here and there small houses and villages dotted the landscape, each neatly maintained with gardens. It resembled Eden, and it was Fergusson’s. Feeling righteous all of a sudden, he vowed to protect the valley from harm and take its people under his protection, and “be good to them.” [i]
Fergusson, whose sense of humor was also quick, anointed himself with such titles as “King of Kalat,” “Grand Duke of Meza,” “Lord of Le-u” and Baron Budaung.[ii] When Calvert, Lt-Colonel Peter Fleming (the older brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and chief of “D Division,” a military deception unit), and other Chindit officers visited weeks later, Fergusson received them with a sort of old-world courtesy, akin to that of “a squire of the manor.”[iii] But at the present, there was serious work to be done. Wingate had arrived in a plane flown by US Lt-Colonel Clinton B. “Clint” Gaty of the Air Commandos. It was March 20.
Gaty, who was in charge of maintenance and engineering within the Air Commandos, and also served as the commander of Lalaghat airfield, was eager to get Aberdeen’s airstrip set up. On his first night at the camp, Fergusson noticed Gaty and his men working throughout the night, clearing a rudimentary airstrip running north to south for 1,200 yards. For some reason, Gaty had chosen to site northern end of the runway close to a hill, upon which Fergusson and his troops had built “Stronghold No. 1” (Stronghold No. 2 was across the river atop another hill).
Early on the morning of March 22nd, six gliders, carrying light bulldozers for the heavy work, were expected. Just after dawn, at about 6 am, five appeared overhead, casting off their tow ropes and circling the rudimentary airstrip to land. All arrived safely, and from one emerged a large, balding American pilot who strode up to Fergusson and said:
“I’m going to church in future!”
“Indeed,” Fergusson said politely. “Why?”
“Over the mountains, the goddam tow-rope got around my goddam wheel; and I said aloud: ‘If that comes off, goddam it, I’m going to church.’ And it came off. Say, is there a church around here?”
“Not yet,” Fergusson said.
The pilot grinned. “Okay. By the way, the name’s Coogan.”[iv]
Fergusson did a double take. Sergeant “Jackie” Coogan, now of the Air Commandos, was renowned for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent masterpiece The Kid. Coogan had been the kid.
Coogan had elicited the same response when he had met John Masters at Hailakandi sometime earlier. “Not the Coogan!” Masters had exclaimed, feeling like a fool just afterwards.
But Masters had been delighted to meet him, because as he said: “I had loved those old movies, with Charlie Chaplin and because [Coogan] and I had been born on the same day, October 26, 1914.” Coogan regaled the crowd with inside information of Chaplin and Betty Grable, but Master quickly observed that Coogan’s heart did not seem to be in those reminisces. It was just something expected of him.[v]
Although the base was fortified, Fergusson was leery of calling Aberdeen a stronghold — in Wingate’s sense of the word — for it was difficult to defend considering its long stretches of flat land which prevented the building of a properly fleshed out defensive perimeter, although it did have a minefield and plenty of heavy weapons.[vi]
The moderately prosperous village of Naunghmi with its well-built homes and gardens occupied the land between the east bank of the river and airstrip. The place was ideal for recuperation. One hiccup was the surrounded hills which caused the transport pilots no end of grief. Initially, most of pilots, having flown in by night, had been oblivious of the hills as was RAF Wing Commander Millington (the CO[vii] of the RAF’s No. 117 Squadron). That changed when they began to land by day. When Millington saw the airstrip in daylight for the first time, and “realized where he had been landing all unknowingly by night… he came near to having a fit,” Fergusson said.[viii]
The airstrip was unforgiving — Once a pilot decided to land, he had to put down or crash into the hills. Yet, in all the time it was operational, not a single plane suffered such a calamity, although there were mishaps.[ix]
Aberdeen had been finally established, and for the next six weeks, it would buzz with activity. But Fergusson had other things on his mind. He was to have been at Indaw by March 15, but it was March 20 before he could even arrive at the site, and not all his troops had come in. Units at the tail end of the march were still filtering in. By when Lt. Taylor and 45 Column arrived, the men of the 6th Nigerians (of the West African Brigade) had already arrived by air.
“They looked as fit as fiddles, while we were exhausted,” said Taylor. “To add to that we had hardly got to Aberdeen when we were ordered off to carry out an attack on Indaw.”[x]
As all this was taking place, Lt-Colonel Claude “Wilkie” Wilkinson’s Leicestershires had already occupied the Auktaw reserved Forest, close to Indaw, and were waiting for the rest of the brigade to move up. This wait gave them a brief respite from operations — the value of which would be proven in just a few days’ time.
The 12th Nigerians were to garrison Aberdeen as the 16th Brigade departed for Indaw. However, none of the 900 men Fergusson had sent to Lonkin had returned, although they had routed the 300 Japanese from that town — earning a rare letter of congratulations from Stilwell. Consequently, Fergusson only had three exhausted battalions (the Leicestershires, the Queens and the 45th Recce) with which to attack Indaw, a mere 25 miles southeast, but for his weary troops, an eternity away.
Fergusson’s instincts told him that he should rest the men and when Wingate visited Aberdeen, he told him as much. After all, the brigade had marched for nearly 50 days without rest. But goaded on by Wingate and distressed by the fact that he was already behind schedule, Fergusson, the professional soldier that he was, decided to go. The decision was made easier by Wingate’s announcement that he was bringing up the reserve brigades, including Ian Brodie’s 14th Brigade, from India as soon as possible and that another West African battalion would land at Aberdeen soon. In any case, the leading elements of the 2nd Leicestershires were already in the hills northeast of Indaw, which had earned them congratulations from Wingate: “Well done, Leicesters. Hannibal eclipsed.”[xi]
Meanwhile, further south, weariness also dogged Lentaigne’s 111th Brigade, which was trying to assemble after being landed on two separate landing zones — Broadway and Chowringhee, separated by the wide expanse of the Irrawaddy River. Half of Lentaigne’s brigade was originally supposed to have landed at Piccadilly. Now they were at more distant Broadway, on the other side of the river.
Almost immediately, it became apparent that the river crossing would be problematic as many of the mules refused to wade into the water. Lentaigne realized that getting his entire force across would consume more time than he could afford considering the danger of Japanese attacks. He decided to send 40 Column (with most of the mules and nearly all the brigade’s heavy weapons), back northeast, to link up with Morris Force, which was working its way up towards the Chinese frontier and Myitkyina, coming into contact with scattered Japanese patrols.
The rest of the 111th plodded on, taking 12 exhausting hours with recalcitrant mules to get across the 1,000-yard span of the river at an exposed stretch near the town of Hieba (much south of Katha). From that point, it would take the brigade until March 26th to cross the railway at Wuntho as the awful, unbearable heat of the Burmese summer took a toll on the fit and the wounded.
Being deep in Burma, Chindit doctors to handle medical emergencies with a degree of improvisation and imagination. After crossing the Irrawaddy, water was found to scarce and the troops quickly became dehydrated. In the more severe cases, a tube would be forced down their throats, to their stomach, through which the medical staff poured water, some brandy and hot sweet tea, to keep them hydrated, according to Major Desmond “Doc” Whyte, a medical officer with the brigade.[xii] As for the medical staff — they were their own doctors. “A doctor in the Chindits was his own surgeon, his own dermatologist, his own orthopedic specialist with just your medical orderlies to help,” Whyte said.[xiii]
Lentaigne’s orders were to make for Pinlebu — the depot area for the Japanese 15th Division. Wingate had a vague idea that Lentaigne’s brigade could disrupt supplies intended for the 15th Division, which was now battling inside India, while making safe the area south of Indaw — Fergusson’s objective.
Wingate’s strategic thinking was sound even though his tactical grasp appeared to be slipping, and what was worse, he seemed to be hazy of what exactly it was that he wanted the 16th and 111th Brigades to do in Burma. Fergusson’s second-in-command, Colonel F.O. “Katie” Cave remembered a prescient conversation with Wingate during which the problem of strongholds came up.
Said Cave: “No one really knew what [Wingate] wanted to do with the 16th Brigade, nor with the 111th Brigade, and so I asked him: ‘Is it your intention that 16th Brigade and 111th Brigade should have their strongholds more or less at the same place and use the same airstrip?’ He said: ‘My dear Cave, how the hell can I tell that until I have seen the place?’”[xiv]
If operations were hampered by Wingate’s indecision, they were double hampered by poor field command. It quickly became clear that the 111th Brigade, for one, was uneven in its progress. Lentaigne, at 45, was far older than most Chindit field officers and was unable to maintain the physical exertion of his troops. He began to tire in spirit, but arguably also in the mind, because as the eminent historian Louis Allen wrote, “his powers of command” began to erode.[xv]
Exhaustion was most common feeling within Fergusson’s 16th Brigade. The force was so stretched out that it would take three to four days for it to gather in any strength and it was imperative that they assemble in force as they faced formidable foes in the form of Takemura’s II/ 51st Infantry Regiment.
As fate would have it, the Japanese were as tired as Fergusson’s men, having marched from Thailand, lugging 65-70lbs of kit. Within the kit was “28 days’ worth of rations, four grenades, 240 rounds of rifle ammunition, another sixty in reserve, greatcoat, tent, blanket, water-bottle, mess-tin, gas-mask, pick and shovel.”[xvi] By now, Japanese officers had received intelligence reports indicating that about a thousand British troops had landed in the Indaw area and were busy building two airstrips, at Inywa and at Mohnyin. The intelligence was faulty in some aspects.
Then, on March 17, reports came that British commandos had been spotted in the jungle around Indaw. Takemura was ordered to attack. This irritated him as he was planning to take his battalion north to attack White City. This aggravation, however, was not shared by his men who were itching to fight. Eight trucks full of troops set off west for Indaw from the venerable Buddhist town of Katha on the Irrawaddy. Their commanders told them to listen for the sounds of whinnying of mules and hunter’s whistles, which the British were known to use for signaling.
By the afternoon of the 19th, Takemura’s forces were in Indaw. In the days before “U-Go,” the city had been quiet, a backwater. Now, it been turned into a supply dump for the Japanese 33rd Division fighting in India, containing 28 days’ worth of rations for the divisional troops, 10 days’ supply of ammunition, 4,500 mortar bombs for the 15th and 31st Divisions, 4,000-6,000 cannon rounds, mountains of rifle ammunition and other military supplies.[xvii]
The relative paucity of such supplies indicates the penury of the Japanese army in Burma, but the British knew that very military depot had to be attacked, and the price for the one at Indaw was large enough to warrant the lives of Fergusson’s men.
The town also held a Japanese military hospital and administrative offices. At its outskirts, around Indaw Lake, were two airfields which Wingate coveted. In his original plan to Fergusson, Wingate had told him to carry out harassing attacks on Indaw and Banmauk. But confronted with the extraordinary success of Operation “Thursday” — thus far — with columns of Chindits running amok in the so-called railway valley north of White City and their disruption of Irrawaddy river traffic, evinced by the sinking of boats, the destruction of bridges and railway lines, and the ambushing of Japanese supply convoys attempting to bypass the railway by using the roads and jungles running north, Wingate was in a state of near exhilaration and believed he was on the cusp of proving the validity of the long-range penetration tactics.
He sent off a message of success to Mountbatten and wrote to Churchill that future success depended upon his superiors supporting him. “Get Special Forces four transport squadrons now and you have all Burma north of 24th parallel plus decisive Japanese defeat,” he said, and as a sort of postscript to underline his case, added: “General Slim gives me his full backing.” Slim, who had done no such thing, was furious.
Notwithstanding, Wingate had seen an opportunity for something more than merely harassing the enemy, and his orders to Fergusson had changed on March 20th. Fergusson was to now seize Indaw and secure its airfields. Capture of the town would deny the Japanese an important supply base and deprive them of a springboard against Calvert’s 77th Brigade. Seizure of the airfields would allow Wingate to fly in his reserves and perhaps even the complete Indian 26th Infantry division, potentially opening the way for an advance on Rangoon.[xviii]
Wingate began to press Fergusson to take Indaw by the night March 24/25, and filled his head with ideas of imminent reinforcements to the extent that Fergusson believed that his assault in Indaw would be supported by Ian Brodie’s 14th Brigade. Even Colonel Cave, who had spent much time at rear headquarters at Lalaghat and was thus privy to high-level operational discussions, was under the impression that Brodie’s men would be landed at Aberdeen. He remembered an early-March conversation with Wingate’s chief of staff, Brigadier Dereck Tulloch, during which he remarked that as Aberdeen would be deserted after Fergusson left for Indaw, it was imperative to get the 12th Nigerians to garrison the place. Tulloch, who was perhaps Wingate’s closest confidante at headquarters, responded by saying that the whole operational plan had changed and that Wingate had decided to move the 14th Brigade into Aberdeen even before the Nigerians were flown in.
Unfortunately, this plan, if it was anything more than a whim concocted in Wingate’s head, we will never know, for it never materialized. What we do know is that there were bigger things at stake.
Slim, who had his hands full containing the Japanese divisions in India, had released the 14th Brigade back into Wingate’s charge on March 21, but then appears to have asked or suggested that it be used to quash Japanese lines of communication leading west, towards India.[xix] Confusion is heaped on the mystery by the deeply biased Official History of the campaign, which claims that Wingate’s order to Brodie (dated March 23) instructing him to move the 14th Brigade to Alezu, 21 miles southwest of Pinlebu — and 46 miles from Indaw, to disrupt Japanese troop and supply movements from Wuntho to the Chindwin was a “misinterpretation of, or disregard for Slim’s wishes.”[xx]
So what were Slim’s exact wishes? What we do know was that he was hard pressed to defeat the Japanese at Kohima and he sought any means to achieve this, even if it meant appropriating Chindit units, and in even if it meant diverting Chindit units to attack to the rear of the Japanese offensive into India. Yet, in his famous memories, Defeat in Victory, Slim actually appears to have believed that Brodie had aided Fergusson in the attack on Indaw, writing: “Fergusson’s 16th Brigade, supported by part of Brodie’s 14th Brigade, moved out of Aberdeen and attempted to seize Indaw by surprise.”[xxi]
A clear indication of his orders to Wingate, however, has been lost to hyperbole, obtuse passages of defense in postwar histories and much finger-pointing after the war. What we also know is that Fergusson, based on the promise of reinforcements set off for Indaw on the afternoon of the 24th without waiting for his 51 and 69 Columns to arrive from Lonkin and during his sojourn to Indaw, was fully convinced that Brodie’s men would join them at the Indaw, and hoped “hourly to get news of them.”[xxii] Instead, when the 14th Brigade began to fly into Burma on the night of 24/25 March, its leading battalion, the 2nd Black Watch headed straight towards Alezu.
So, why did Wingate give Fergusson the impression that Brodie’s troops would help at Indaw? Many historians believe this confusion was created by a fatal misunderstanding. Brodie’s brigade was at some point in time intended to be landed at Aberdeen to help at Indaw, but something had altered the plan. Either Fergusson’s discussions with Wingate over the use of the 14th Brigade never reached headquarters, or more likely, Slim had asked Wingate to modify the original plan, which Wingate had willingly acquiesced to — without informing Fergusson.
Right from outset, things started to go wrong for 16th Brigade. The weather was against them, and even the countryside seemed to regard them as anathema. Headquarters and Wingate constantly harked on the schedule and pressed Fergusson to keep moving. Fergusson did not even have an opportunity to send ahead reconnaissance parties ahead of his main force of five columns, which, in the torrid and dry heat of mid-march Burmese summer, began to wilt. To Fergusson’s horror, he soon realized that there was no water to be found along his route to Indaw, with the only source of potable water being Indaw Lake, which was behind enemy lines.
The men grew listless, the mules whinnied for something to drink and the sun blazed. The jungle had receded miles ago, and the brigade found itself in the loose woods of teak country. The dry, waterless earth took the dull thuds of boots and mules hooves with apathy. It had nothing to offer them.
Worse, Fergusson realized he was being undone by his own army. Weeks before, Chindits of the 111th Brigade, marching towards Pinlebu, had told pro-Japanese headmen that an attack on Indaw was imminent — in total ignorance of Fergusson’s objectives. This information was been intended to serve as a smokescreen for the 111th Brigade’s actual attack on Pinlebu, but it instead transpired to heighten Japanese vigilance in the Indaw area even as Fergusson’s orders changed on March 20th.[xxiii] As Fergusson’s leading forces closed in on Indaw, he also found himself out of radio contact with heqdquarters for a critical 24 hours from March 21-23 as Wingate, alarmed by continuing Japanese advances within eastern India, chose this critical juncture close down and move his forward headquarters from Imphal to Sylhet, 130 miles to the east.
In the midst of all these hurdles, Japanese military strength began to blossom. Mataguchi, now deeply committed in Imphal and Kohima, had finally recognized the threat fermenting in his rear. Hurriedly, reinforcements began to stream in. First from divisions fighting against Slim’s forces in India, then from others opposing Stilwell’s Chinese, and finally from other parts of Southeast Asia.
These were units of infantry and artillery desperately need by Japanese commanders at Imphal and Kohima such as II/21st Field Artillery Regiment, Major-General’s Hayashi Yoshihide’s 24th Independent Mixed Brigade[xxiv], Colonel Wakiyama’s II/146th Infantry Regiment from Yunnan, Colonel Ichikari’s 11th Infantry Regiment and Colonel Harada’s II/ 29th Infantry Regiment, which was sent to occupy Thetkyegin, just north of Lake Indaw on the night of the 26th. A staff officer, Lt-Colonel Hashimoto Hiroshi, had been appointed to command the forces at Indaw, but the scale of the reinforcements grew to such an extent that Hashimoto was soon out of his league.
The natives of Indaw underwent a sea change. When once they were warm and friendly towards their Japanese overlords, now — with the arrival of the Chindits, they turned sullen and cool towards their erstwhile masters.[xxv]
Mataguchi, who had started to consider the Chindit threat so great, began to contemplate withdrawing his units fighting in India back into Burma. But first he would make a fight of it and see what happened.
Fergusson told the two columns of the 45th Recce Regiment under Lt-Colonel “Dick” Cumberledge to seize Thetkegyin on the northern shores of Lake Indaw, while 17 Column (Leicestershires), under Lt-Colonel “Wilkie” Wilkinson advanced on the right flank through the cover of the Kyagaung Ridge, traversing the narrow slopes in single-file, towards Indaw and the East Airfield. The western road to Banmauk was to be cut by 22 Column (1st Queens), to prevent reinforcements coming from the west, while her sister column (Lt-Colonel Metcalf’s 21 Column) looped around a left hook to attack Indaw from the south. Altogether, Fergusson had four columns for the attack on Indaw— about 1,800 men. But he had made a critical mistake. Instead assembling them for a concerted attack towards the airfield, like a fist, he sent them wide, “like the clutching fingers of a hand.”
At the village of Auktaw, six miles north of Indaw, Fergusson’s forward elements found themselves unexpectedly under fire from a 400-strong unit of the Burma National Army (BNA), derisively known as the Burma Traitor Army, and some Japanese.
Fergusson had no intention of going in Auktaw, but a reckless reconnaissance group eager join the offensive against Indaw had blundered into the town and been mauled, with both officers killed and three men dead.[xxvi]
Fergusson was angry. The element of surprise had been lost. There was no doubt that the forces at Auktaw had reported his advance to the main Japanese garrison at Indaw.[xxvii] There was nothing left to do now except send 45 and 54 Recce Columns “flat-out” for Thetkegyin on the lake.[xxviii] The two columns rapidly filled up on water from the pleasant Ledan Chaung and set off. Meantime, the Leicesters routed the BNA from Auktaw, killing 30 of the enemy and capturing one man, a former Burmese postal employee. Fergusson next sent a runner to tell Wilkinson to hurry his troops along the Kyagaung and go for Inwa, a small village on the lake’s eastern shore. “Wilkie” Wilkinson, his arm broken in two places during the firefight at Auktaw, set off south without hesitation.
Later, Fergusson would blame himself for not deploying his Brigade HQ — an unwieldy and vulnerable formation of about 200 men (most of them specialists, barring two combat platoons) and sixty mules encumbered with supplies and communication equipment, in the jungle — and personally accompanying the Leicestershires to oversee the attack. In retrospect, his presence on the battlefield would have brought little benefit. His three battalions were attacking along widely separated prongs. If he intended to personally supervise operations and rally the troops, he would need a jeep. But Fergusson was on foot. He had little choice but to remain at brigade HQ and direct operations through the wireless. But as luck would have it, a continuous thunderstorm over the next three days and nights played havoc with his radio transmissions. Yet, initially, Fergusson felt he need not worry. All went like clockwork.
The Leicestershires came off down the ridge and taking the Japanese by total surprise, seized Inwa without casualties. Wilkinson and his men dug-in on the Inwa Chaung, a stone’s throw from the East Airfield, and secured their water source. They would hold the village for the next two days against overwhelming odds,[xxix] nimbly backed by the Air Commandos, who bombed, strafed and killed large numbers of Japanese. On the left flank, however, the picture turned grim.
Thetkegyin and the entire lake front was heavily defended by the Japanese, but no one knew that when the attack began on the 26th. Where the jungle ended, there grew a wide strip of paddy separating the trees from the lake, and here the Japanese poured murderous fire onto the Recces. The British were still lugging their heavy packs when they came under fire, while the Japanese wore light kit and what looked like PT dress. The British, by now having expended the water collected from the Ledan Chaung, were within sight of the lake but found they had to pay a heavy price to get it.
Being the rearmost battalion in the brigade throughout its long trek, the Recces were also the weariest of Fergusson’s troops. They were always the last in, and never able to get a respite as the leading columns always seemed to march on towards the next rendezvous point just as they arrived. And there was no one more exhausted than the battalion commander, Cumberledge, who was leading 45 Column.
Cumberledge was only 36, but he was physically unfit and ailing under the rigorous march. Yet, out of gentlemanly pride, he refused to have his pack carried on a mule, wearing himself out further and losing control over his column. Lt. Peter Taylor, who was the commander of the reconnaissance platoon within 45 Column, found that instead of being assigned to reconnaissance duties, his unit was instead ordered to protect Cumberledge’s group.
The situation went from bad to worse. The Recces could not emerge from the jungle to reach the lake owing to the heavy Japanese fire, although they made several attempts. Barring one or two platoons, 45 Column went without water for over a day. Further disasters transpired as the day wore on. A mule carrying flame-throwing fuel was hit by an explosive bullet. The fuel ignited. The animal, crazed by the pain hurled itself into a dump of mortar bombs and ammunition, and the lot blew up.
For the longest time, Fergusson had no idea what was happening at Thetkegyin. Then messages started arriving: 45 Column had suffered 30 percent casualties, it had lost contact with its sister column, 54 Column, and was dispersing in its efforts to find water.
The column began to move east towards the Meza River to find water, relentlessly harried by the Japanese. At the river, they ran into more Japanese. The thirsty mules, smelling the water, broke from their handlers and charged towards river and straight towards Japanese lines. Seeing them, an animalistic instinct appeared to overtake some of the troops as well. They rushed blindly towards the river, caring nothing for death if it only meant slaking their thirst. Many were killed.
Cumberledge called a retreat and sent Taylor and his men to inform the troops about the new rendezvous point. As dusk neared, Taylor and his men tried to warn as many units as possible. He found Major Ron Adams, second-in-command of 45 Column with a rifle company and told them where to go. Then he came on another group of soldiers whom he thought were Chindits. When he shouted the codeword “Namkin,” the group stopped and stared at him. He shouted it again, but then realized they were Japanese. At that moment, Taylor’s sergeant opened fire on the Japanese, and shouted to Taylor: “This way, sir.”
Taylor leapt into the thicket and disappeared into the bush followed by his men. They eventually rejoined Major Adams and the rest of the assembled troops. When later they went into village where they were told by natives was water, they realized they had walked into an ambush. Gunfire tore into the company. Adams was wounded and left behind.
“God only knows what happened to him,” Taylor said after the war. In fact, Adams was listed as killed in action that day.
As night fell, Taylor and survivors managed to get back to Aberdeen. They were the lucky ones. The “Battle of the Water Bottles” — as it was dubbed in the British press, was over.[xxx]
More bad news piled on to the disasters overtaking the brigade. Metcalf’s 21 Column, working their around Indaw from the south, had taken a beating. Initially, the column had done well. They discovered a massive supply dump at the “West” airfield and had called in an Air Commando airstrike. Column commanders believed the airstrike had been ineffective as they could not see the damage, but the Air Commandos had destroyed the dump wiping out critical supplies destined for the Japanese 18th Division.[xxxi] The column next ambushed a Japanese convoy, destroying about 30 Japanese trucks headed for Indaw.
After this, things began to go wrong. As dusk fell, Metcalf decided to halt the column for the night. Yet, some of the officers were perturbed by the location of their camp. Tire tracks were noticed on a dirt path running within the bivouac area. The Queens were in the process of setting up a perimeter with all-round defense when abruptly, as if the sky was blotted out behind a screen, it became dark. At that moment, they heard the sound of engines.
At first, everyone thought it was aircraft, but six trucks with Japanese troops drove “slap-bang” into the bivouac.
“Chaos reigned,” said Color Sergeant Atkins. “The Japs jumped out of their lorries, there were grenades going off, there was screaming and shouting. The CO was wounded. People were milling around, people had taken off their packs, leaned their weapon against a tree, and had started to brew up. Some people were close to their weapons, others weren’t.”
Elsewhere, the Queens opened fire indiscriminately, often at their own side. Close-quarter fighting reigned. One young British soldier held a Japanese while another bayoneted him. Major Clowes, the column second-in-command had his revolver blown from his hand by the blast of a nearby grenade. With Metcalf laid low by wounds, he assumed command, and ordered an immediate evacuation across a nearby chaung. The stream proved deep, however, and several men drowned. The Queens fled into the night, some without their weapons. At dawn, they discovered 70 men were missing, and that their mules had scattered. The wireless had been lost.
The column remained disoriented, its nerves broken. When Fergusson was informed of the debacle by a short-range wireless set, he realized that the unit had shot its bolt and could no longer play a part in the attack on Indaw.
He instructed the column to retreat, but told them harass every enemy unit they found on the way back. “Be bloody [about it],” Fergusson radioed. The men, in an attempt to salvage their pride, attempted to just that, only to complain later that that the Japanese had disappeared. Then in scattered groups, they head back towards Aberdeen, often avoiding the Japanese when they could. Metcalf, who had also retreated to Aberdeen, would later harangue the men, accusing them of being a rabble and said that it was to stop. What good that speech did is not known. No. 21 Column was out of the fight — for now.
For the last three days now, Fergusson had been radioing Aberdeen in a vain attempt to discover if the 14th Brigade had arrived. “Wellington was not more impatient to hear of Blucher and his Prussians than I to hear of Brodie and his British,” Fergusson said later.[xxxii] He was greeted with silence. He then messaged “Katie” Cave, back in India, with increasingly rude signals demanding to why no one at Aberdeen was answering him. The response was sporadic, but one message stood out: “Position Aberdeen obscure.” With little concrete information, Fergusson began to assume the worst, and with a chill in the heart, thought that perhaps Aberdeen had been overrun by the enemy.
By now, the only units still fighting were 22 Column (Queens) under Major Terence Close, who having established a roadblock near Banmauk, had mauled a Japanese convoy, killing over thirty Japanese for the loss of five of its own, and the Leicesters, who were holding their valuable positions against ferocious Japanese counterattacks. Fergusson worried that their food was running low when in fact the battalion was feasting on captured Japanese foodstuff.
Nevertheless, the Leicesters were unable to advance out of their small perimeter and take the airfield, held by the numerically superior Japanese. As the day of March 28th dimmed into dusk, Fergusson gave himself until nightfall for confirmation that the 14th Brigade had arrived, or in fact any news at all from Aberdeen that would allow him to continue operations for the next three days.
Aberdeen remained mute. Fergusson voiced his fears that something must have happened at Aberdeen to warrant their silence. A rumor quickly spread that the Japanese had attacked Aberdeen — news of which even reached the Air Commando light plane camp at Taungle, just east of Aberdeen. A native had run into the camp screaming that the Japanese were coming (they never did). The pronouncement was enough to create a panic among the pilots of the light plane force and its affable commander, US Major Andrew Rebori. The force decided to immediately decamp for their main base at Taro and the Aberdeen garrison was astounded to see the sky turn black with light planes fleeing north towards India.
Back at Indaw, Fergusson decided it was time to pull out. Night had come. The wireless reception remained poor, and there was still no word from Aberdeen. To leave the Leicesters where they were for a few more days might mean to see them destroyed. He ordered 22 Column to abandon its position on the Banmauk road and move down towards Auktaw to cover the withdrawal of the Leicesters. Fergusson decided to take his surviving troops to the Kachin foothills, where they could rest and recuperate. And being close in enough to White City, they could possibly regain their strength for a second attempt on Indaw.
The next morning, the 29th, the storm clouds had dissipated and the wireless was working at full strength. Fergusson and his staff could hear the withdrawing Leicesters calling in the attack planes of the Air Commando as they quit Inwa. The Mustangs and the Mitchells came soaring overhead, the morning sunlight glinting off their wings, the Japanese positions disappearing under clouds of dust and high-explosives. They could heard the Leicesters’ RAF liaison officer directed the attacks, saying: “Oh beauty,” as the ground shook under the explosions of bombs and the air became rend with the noise of heavy gunfire. For an hour this went on, until finally Fergusson’s staff finally received a heartning signal from the Leicesters: “Withdrawing slowly owing to wounded.”They had held out for two days and three nights, and had almost single-handedly redeemed the brigade’s reputation.
The angst which had gripped Fergusson so thoroughly these last few days began to ease. Then arrived another signal, this time from Major Close: 22 Column had arrived at Auktaw, to support the withdrawal.
The “nightmare was beginning to fade,” Fergusson wrote later even as other news began to arrive in a deluge. Aberdeen had not fallen. Far from it, the Nigerians of the 3rd West African Brigade had arrived and had secured the place while the leading battalion of Brodie’s 14th Brigade (the 2nd Black Watch had already come and gone to Legyin, some 30 miles south), with the remaining three battalions were expected soon. Although Fergusson was pleased that no calamity had befallen Aberdeen, the revelation that Brodie did not have orders to support him at Indaw struck him like a blow to the stomach.
Meantime, Cochran, furious at Rebori for evacuating the light planes without verifying the rumors about Aberdeen, sacked him. Rebori’s subordinate was also fired. Calvert and Fergusson argued that the men should be given a reprieve, but Cochran was adamant. Fergusson wrote the two men a letter to thank them for “all they had done for us,” but they never received it, having already departed for the states, despondent over the way they had been drummed out.[xxxiii]
When the full facts of the battle for Indaw became clear, Fergusson began to berate himself for not coordinating his attacks properly. He was, however, also incensed at Wingate for not sending him the promised reinforcements. Why had Brodie’s brigade been kept from him? Why hadn’t some of the Nigerians joined him at Indaw? But there was no one to answer him, for by this time, Wingate was already dead.
On the evening of March 24th, following a meeting with officers in Broadway, Wingate had a boarded an Air Commando Mitchell to Imphal to meet with Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin. A Chindit officer at Broadway later recalled that the Mitchell pilot, US Lt. Brian Hodges, seemed worried about one of his engines. Hodges asked Colonel Claude Rome, the stronghold commander, to ask Wingate to wait for another plane. Wingate declined and insisted on flying out right away.
Colonel Rome would later comment that the Mitchell had “fairly staggered off the runway, using every inch of it.”[xxxiv]
At Imphal, the plane sat on the ground for the next 90 minutes, where, despite Hodge’s concern, the plane was not inspected for a fault. When Squadron leader John Hewitson, the senior air traffic controller, informed Hodges that weather conditions were 10/10ths all over. Hodges replied, “The old man [Wingate] wants to go, so I guess I’d better take him.”
Wingate could be seen pacing up and down the area round the control tower in the torrential rain, oblivious of the soaking he was receiving, “itching to be off.”[xxxv] After about 8pm, Wingate, his aide, Captain George Borrow, two British war correspondents Stewart Emeny and Stanley Wills, and the five-man American aircrew boarded the aircraft and took off in what was described as “pissing rain.”[xxxvi] About twenty minutes later, the plane crashed onto the slopes of the Bishenpur Hills southwest of Imphal, killing all onboard. Native hillsmen reported seeing an aircraft flying low, on fire and losing altitude. As it passed over their village and disappeared beyond a tree, they heard a loud explosion. A crew of a Dakota, which was also flying nearby, witnessed explosions and flames.
Search parties were quickly dispatched, but it proved a struggle to reach the crash site on the 3,000-foot hill. Cochran wanted to fly to the crash site right away using one of his four top-secret Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters. The regular helicopter crews talked him out of it because the craft would never be able to reach that elevation.[xxxvii] The helicopters had a service ceiling of only 4,000 ft — under optimal conditions. Most times, on especially hot days, its 180-hp engine could barely lift it above the trees. Within the small craft was space for a pilot and only one passenger. Its innards could only carry 515 lbs of fuel.
Cochran sent his “Grasshopper” light planes to scour the area for the wreckage. US Staff Sergeant Lloyd I. Samp was the first to find the wreckage. He reported that the crash site was located into the westward slope of the hill even though the aircraft was heading east.
Theories ran rampant about why the plane had crashed. Weather was mentioned, with blame being apportioned on sudden turbulence which was sometimes common in the hills. Engine trouble was raised and there was even talk of the plane being sabotaged. Certainly, the Japanese were keen to see the end of Wingate, and Fergusson later reported that news of the death had sent the Japanese into “ecstasies of joy.”[xxxviii] Another theory was that the B-25 was carrying cluster bombs which broke loose from the bays, rolled into the fuselage and exploded.[xxxix]
In an era of aviation without the benefit of black boxes, the crash was written off to possible bad weather and engine trouble. Certainly the weather was been ideal. Samp, who was directing a British search party to the crash site in a light plane, was soon in trouble himself, after his engine had iced up. He crash landed near the wreckage. The search party arrived soon after and began to sift through the smashed remains of the Mitchell. The only proof Wingate had ever been aboard were the remains of his Kitchner topee and some letters.[xl]
The news came as a grievous blow to the Chindits and stunned many, from Wingate’s friends to his enemies. “A bright flame was extinguished,” wrote Churchill. Mountbatten, issued a special following Order of the Day to the Chindits:
General Wingate has been killed in the hour of his triumph. The Allies have lost one of the most forceful and dynamic personalities that this war has produced. You have lost the finest and most inspiring leader a force could have wished for, and I have lost a personal friend and faithful supporter. He has lit the torch. Together we must grasp it and carry it forward. Out of your gallant and hazardous expedition into the heart of Japanese-held territory will grow the final re-conquest of Burma and the ultimate defeat of the Japanese. He was so proud of you. I know you will live up to his expectations.[xli]
The news had dealt Fergusson a staggering blow. Initially, he had only been told that Wingate was missing for the last few days and presumed killed, but as the days went by, it was clear that the general was dead. “It…was a loss which affected the whole war in the east,” he wrote later.[xlii] Suddenly, it all appeared to make sense for Fergusson. His plan devised with Wingate at Aberdeen for the employment of the 14th Brigade at Indaw had simply never reached HQ. His signals to Wingate about the 14th Brigade had been clearly misunderstood by his staff. Years after the war, however, when Fergusson was shown Wingate’s orders to Brodie, detailing his objectives against the rear of the Japanese attacking India, he felt a stinging hurt of betrayal. “At times, the truth was simply not in him [Wingate],” he was to say.[xliii]
Some men openly grieved Wingate’s death. Captain Richard Rhodes James, a cipher officer within the 111th Brigade HQ, considered the implications on their future, asking: “Who will look after us now? Our master was gone and we, his masterpiece, were now ownerless.”[xliv]
Mountbatten, ever gracious, wrote to his wife, Edwina: “I cannot tell you how much I am going to miss Wingate. Not only had we become close personal friends but he was such a fire-eater, and it was such a help to me having a man with a burning desire to fight. He was a pain in the neck to the generals over him, but I loved his wild enthusiasm and it will be difficult for me to try to inculcate it from above.”[xlv]
Slim’s last glimpse of Wingate had been just days before, when on March 22, he and the irascible Chindit leader had “another bust-up” in Comilla over Wingate’s reckless telegram to Churchill claiming Slim’s unequivocal support for the diversion of further troops and aircraft to the Chindits. When had Wingate prepared to leave, he turned back towards Slim and said: “You know, you are the only senior officer in Southeast Asia who does not wish me dead.”[xlvi]
Slim was astounded. He may have disliked Wingate to a degree, but how could he possible dislike such a man who was his own worst enemy? “With Wingate, contact had too often been collision, for few could meet so stark a character without being violently attracted or repelled,” wrote Slim after the war. “To most he was either prophet or adventurer. Very few could regard him dispassionately; nor did he care to be so regarded. I once likened him to Peter the Hermit preaching his Crusade. I am sure that many of the knights and princes that Peter so fiercely exhorted did not like him very much – but they went crusading all the same. The trouble was, I think, that Wingate regarded himself as a prophet, and that always leads to a single-centeredness that verges on fanaticism, with all his faults. Yet had he not done so, his leadership could not have been so dynamic, nor his personal magnetism so striking.”[xlvii]
A quandary developed over who would replace Wingate. The logical choice should have been the deputy commander, Major-General George Symes, who was able but arguably did not have full range of experience in commanding Chindit formations in the field. There was also Wingate’s chief of Staff, Derek Tulloch, calm and unflappable who was perhaps hampered by his lack of combat experience; Calvert, young, ardent and “fanatically brave,” with a capacity for staff work, planning and “full of invention” and Joe Lentaigne, brave but too conventional — although he and Wingate had always got on well together. Fergusson was also a credible choice, although he being tied up in the Indaw battle likely obviated him from consideration.
Wingate had promised Tulloch command of the Chindits in case something had ever happened to him, but it transpired that he had also promised two or three other officers the same thing. Tulloch himself did not think he was fit for command and in a meeting with Slim, he claimed that Lentaigne was ‘the one most in tune with Wingate.”[xlviii] Why he would make this preposterous claim when such a statement clearly applied to another — Calvert — is beyond belief.
Perhaps, it was to get Lentaigne out of the field and into the thankless job of command, which meant being a politician of sorts and a diplomat more than a soldier. Tulloch knew that Lentaigne had been struggling in the field. It is possible that Tulloch regraded Lentaigne’s removal from the field into command far more affordable — than say, the removal of Calvert, who was holding together White City and 77th Brigade through the sheer force of his persona and military skill. In any case, Calvert — at age 31— was also young. Had he been promoted, he would have been the youngest major-general in the British army.[xlix] Perhaps too young for such an honor.
Whatever the reason, Slim found Tulloch’s choice agreeable. In his memories, Defeat into Victory, Slim wrote that he had wanted to appoint an individual known the men, “one who had experienced their hardships and in whose skill and courage they could trust.”
Like himself, Lentaigne was a Gurkha officer. He was conventional, without the temperament for tantrums, and possessing none of Wingate’s forcefulness of character or his rapport with Churchill. Lentaigne, however, was immensely fond of whiskey and as a consequence, as experience had shown in Burma, was not physically up to the task of field operations. He was promoted to Major-General on March 27th —the same day that Fergusson was struggling at Indaw, cut off from the world.
On March 30th, Lentaigne, looking scruffy and tired, flew to India to take official command of the Chindits. His face betrayed worry for he had become strangely convinced that Broadway and White City faced imminent collapse, even as their defenders boldly repulsed one attack after the next. He was, in short, a man who “utterly failed to inspire confidence.”[l]
Symes was furious at Tulloch and Slim at being passed over. “I have known and sensed that Tulloch has been in opposition to me all the time and has made no effort to keep me in the picture,” he wrote in his diary. “Reason: I don’t know other than that he knows I disagree with some — or most — of the administrative methods.”[li]
When Symes went to see Slim, he was told that nobody had known was his status was, and Slim admitted to not thinking about him at all… as he “had made the decision hurriedly and had not had time to think it out…”[lii]
Symes next made a formal protest to the Chief of Imperial General Staff in London, and asked to be relieved as deputy commander. Tulloch was appointed as his replacement. But Tulloch who had never expected this, found the job not only uncomfortable, but in the end, humiliating. Lentaigne began to bypass him in favor of Brigadier Neville Marks, chief supply officer and his own chief of staff Lt-Colonel Henry T. Alexander.[liii] Tulloch found himself in an office which did nothing and which was decisively out of the loop.
In the meantime, Lt-Colonel “Jumbo” Morris of Morrisforce, a man whom the eminent historian Shelford Bidwell described as “overbearing, tactless and authoritarian, the last man to be entrusted with the political and military subtleties of clandestine warfare,”[liv] was promoted to Brigadier and appointed Lentaigne’s replacement in the 111th Brigade.
Morris was appalled. His force was in the throes of moving towards Myitkyina from Bhamo, and he was in no position to relinquish command to join 111th Brigade. A compromise was reached. On paper, Morris became the commander of the brigade. In actuality, it was to be commanded by its brigade major, John “Jack” Masters, who as a relatively junior officer aged 30, now faced the discomfiting task of ordering about officers more senior to himself.
Back at Aberdeen the tired and mauled columns were trudging in. The Recces had great gashes torn in their ranks. In contrast, the Leicesters were largely intact and ready to fight. Fergusson, who had ordered their commander, Wilkinson, to put himself on immediate evacuation to hospital, found that Wilkinson and the wounded had already flown on to India by when he arrived. Cumberledge of the Recces was also placed on a flight home. He was sick and exhausted, but protested vociferously at being relieved. But Fergusson talked him into going and the battalion was handed over Lt-Colonel George Astell of the Burma Rifles. Fergusson recommended Wilkinson for an immediate Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and put in one of his sergeants for a Distinguished Conduct Medal (the non-com’s equivalent of a DSO). Both were quickly accepted.
As Fergusson watched those of his men who were going, he felt torn between pride for his brigade and sadness over its defeat. Wingate had suggested to Fergusson that he concentrate his entire force along a solid pincer along the Kyagaung Ridge towards Indaw. Would that have worked? Fergusson was forced to concede that it might have.
There was nothing left to do now except look after the welfare of the survivors and hope they would be able to a mount a second attack soon.He granted his men three days’ leave without duty of any kind and ensured they were well fed and rested. Dakotas kept coming, bringing in reinforcements and taking out the wounded and the sick. The troops received new clothing to replace their rags and were handed American blankets and .30-cal M1 carbines, in place of the “abominable Sten gun.”[lv] [lvi] The men soon found that the simple act of staying in one place with enough to eat and drink, and with hours to sleep away was tantamount to unimaginable “luxury.”[lvii]
Days later, Fergusson pressed for his second offensive towards Indaw and got it, with direct authorization from Tulloch. This time, Fergusson intended to seize Indaw’s West Airfield, attacking through the flat jungle terrain of the west. The Queens had the task of capturing the airfield. But the operation proved a massive anti-climax. Even before the attack started, Fergusson was told that even if they took the airfield, there were no troops available in India who could be landed there. As events transpired, the Queens indeed captured the airfield — without a single shot being fired and held the place, which was deserted, for the next two days before being pulled back. Further orders arrived in a day or two from Special Force HQ: the brigade was to get some rest as it was to fly back to India. The 16th Brigade’s campaign in Burma was over.
With nothing left to do at Aberdeen, Fergusson took to visiting Calvert at White City, just 20 minutes away by light plane. Here, he found the spirits of the men bordered on extreme confidence. They had already licked the Japanese and were prepared to hold till the end. Their optimism was infectious, and although Fergusson, in his second memories, The Wild Green Earth, was sorely tempted to tell their story. He refrained, for it was not his to tell. That was to be the domain of the victors of White City, and their master, Calvert.
FIELD OF RED AT WHITE CITY
As March turned into April, it first began to become clear that Wingate’s death had not only removed him from the field of battle but that it threatened to undo his ideas as well.
During an April 3rd meeting of senior officers at Jorhat, India, which placed Lentaigne in such exalted company as Mountbatten, Slim, Stilwell, Lt-General Montague Stopford of IV Corps and Air Vice-Marshal Baldwin, the men of “Special Force” watched helplessly as Slim stripped 23th Brigade from their command, placing it in the hands of Stopford for use around Kohima.
Then he assured Stilwell that the other Chindit brigades (now totaling an impressive 20,000 men in Burma) would remain in place to carry out their original function of drawing off enemy forces, prevent reinforcements from reaching the enemy, and creating chaos southwest of Myitkyina. Stilwell was told to go all out for Myitkyina. Then, with Mountbatten’s approval, it was decided that the Chindits’ 14th and 111th Brigades would attack and harass Japanese forces to the rear of Mataguchi’s 15th Army on the Chindwin.
When Lentaigne flew to Aberdeen to tell Calvert and Fergusson of the changes, both men were furious and disagreed. What they were being asked to now, in short, was to abandon Wingate’s doctrine of long-range penetration in order to serve as some sort of “firebrigade.” Remarkably, while critics have lambasted the 111th Brigade and Lentaigne for “not endorsing long-range penetration tactics” or even being “favorably impressed with Wingate,”[lviii] grave, angry mutterings began within the brigade that they were “at the beck and call of anyone who felt in need of help,” leaving their strategic plan at the mercy of the wind.[lix]
Fergusson was eager to retain the territory around Indaw and Calvert pressed hard for Broadway and White City to remain as they were, but both had gravely underestimated the greater forces at play, because it soon became apparent to those with the gift of foresight that the Chindits were no longer in the privileged position of proving their tactics. Instead, they were in a fight for their lives against a foe that was to prove as lethal as any Japanese bullet — “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
If they had known how events would unfold they would have gladly backed Slim’s plan to withdraw them from their strongholds to aid him against Mataguchi at Imphal, no matter how abhorrent the idea was. They would have gladly concentrated in the Kalewa area to hit the 15th Army’s lines of communications close to the battle. Tulloch certainly would not have talked Slim out of a plan that would have seen that both Calvert and Fergusson withdraw from their strongholds to deploy closer to the Chindwin,[lx] by pointing out that Calvert’s white City occupied the primary route for Japanese supplies destined for the Japanese 18th Division fighting Stilwell’s forces in the north. To abandon White City meant allowing the 18th Division to grow. If Tulloch had remained silent, he could have prevented Slim’s April 9th signal to Lentaigne, cancelling his earlier orders for the 14th and 111th Brigades, and instead transferring the Chindits entirely to Stilwell’s command.[lxi]
Under the acerbic, abusive “limey-hating” Stilwell, the Chindits would soon be bled white. Under Stilwell, they were no longer a “Special Force,” but line infantry tasked with the traditional divisional role of advancing and seizing well-defended objectives — which they neither had the training for nor the equipment.
Oblivious of such hardships to come, Calvert hunkered down at White City. The local intelligence was not promising. It had taken Kawabe of Burma Area Army, two weeks to react to the glider landings. But by April 4, the 24th Independent Mixed Brigade (and its 4th Infantry Regiment) under Maj-General Yoshihide Hayashi, was on its way to area. Another two battalions were dispatched to attack Broadway and other Chindits blocking the Bhamo-Myitkyina road.
Already, Broadway had come under fanatical Japanese ground assaults starting on March 27th. Rome was determined to get as many wounded as possible away before the enemy attacked. Experience had shown, especially in Burma’s Arakan peninsula that previous year that the Japanese were as unforgiving of soldiers laid up in the hospital as they were of troops in fighting trim. Field hospitals which fell victim to Japanese raids and breaches, suffered nearly total loss of life, with the infirm bayoneted in their beds and all doctors and medical staff shot.
At 10.30 pm, under an inky black Burmese night, the last of the Dakotas at Broadway flew off for India. Fifteen minutes later, the Japanese of II/146th Infantry Regiment, attacked. The fighting was fierce. A Japanese squad breached the perimeter but was winkled out and destroyed by dawn. Repulsed, the Japanese began to dig in along the northern perimeter. When Rome began to pummel them with mortar strikes, the Japanese brought in two large artillery pieces and began to shell the stronghold. This went on until the positions of the guns were triangulated and wiped out by the Chindit’s own 25-pounder artillery guns.[lxii]
The attacks continued for the next three days. On three occasions, the attacks breached the perimeter, but Chindits held fast, supported by artillery and snipers. Furious, those Japanese that reached the airstrip used their bayonets and knives upon the light aircraft positioned at the dispersals, hacking and slashing at the light skin before melting sway into the jungle. [lxiii] Finally, an RAF liaison officer guided in a pinpoint strike by the Air Commandos, which inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese troops. On April 1st, their commander conceded that the attacks had failed. The siege of Broadway was over. The battle of White City was about to begin.
Hayashi, who had moved his brigade to Mawlu on April 1, was to begin his counter-attack on the night of April 6/7, with a ten-day assault on the “White City,” by now reinforced with five British, Gurkha and West African battalions, well dug-in behind barbed wire, with artillery, mortars, machine guns, and a seemingly endless supply of ammunition – thanks to the regular airdrops.
The leading elements of the 7th Nigerians had flown into White City just a day before. Major Charles Carfrae of 29 Column and his men were told that the “Japanese are a very different kettle of fish from the Italians” whom some of the men had fought in Eritrea. The West Africans had little respect for the Italians and had scant idea of the formidable foes they were to face in the form of the Japanese.
The Japanese regard of the Africans, in turn, boiled down to pure racism. A Tokyo radio broadcast proclaimed that “African cannibals led by European fanatics,” had arrived in Burma. This racist belief, created for propaganda, percolated down to average soldiers. Soon after, when other West African battalions joined the campaign in Burma’s Arakan Peninsula that year, diaries found on dead Japanese troops testified to the awe and mystique the Africans engendered within the Japanese. One diarist wrote: “Because of their beliefs they are not afraid to die, so even if their comrades have fallen they keep on advancing as if nothing had happened. They have an excellent physique and are very brave, so fighting against these soldiers is somewhat troublesome.”[lxiv]
Some of the Africans were ex-convicts recruited from prisons, and quickly made a formidable impact on the Japanese. “They scared the Japs to begin with,” said Lt. John “Jack” Osborne of the 7th Nigerians who deployed at White City with his platoon. “When the Japs saw these hulking great blacks with filed teeth and slashed cheeks, they were pretty scared, as I must say too were some of the English white soldiers who were mixed up with them.”[lxv]
The Japanese soldiers considered the Africans adept at jungle fighting even though most came from the arid, desert plains of northern Nigeria. Such misconceptions were not limited to the Japanese, however. Many Indian communities lived in fear of the Africans, also convinced these muscular, dark men were cannibals. One incident hilariously reinforced this misconception when a group of West Africans, mistaking packets of blood plasma for jam (or jelly), spread it on their toast.[lxvi]
White City, the Africans found, was the size of a large park, about 1,000 yards long and 800 yards wide, bristling with three rings of wire, machine guns and artillery. To the west, the Chindits had dug-in on the summits of the low hills overlooking the railway line and the fields of paddy beyond. The perimeter continued north where it overlooked a small valley, about 20 yards wide. To the east the wire went over the top of several wooded hills where visibility was down to a mere 10 yards. The southern perimeter overlooked the Nankye Chaung.
US airborne engineers and Indian sappers from the Bengal Sappers and Miners Regiment had blown up the rail bridge spanning the Nankye Chaung, and had pulled the sleeper logs from the railway line to serve as top cover for the slit trenches, turning them into a line of bunkers. Two airstrips lined the flat ground beside the railway line, with the heavy aircraft landing strip built outside the perimeter, on the other side of the railway line.
The South Staffords manned the northern and eastern sectors of the perimeter, while the Lancashire Fusiliers and the 3/6th Gurkhas held the southern and western lines. Captain MacPherson’s Brigade HQ Defense Company held the highest hill, “OP Hill” which offered a grand view of the area, while the main medical casualty station was concealed in a re-entrant, opposite a desolate knoll named “Bare Hill,” which had been denuded of all trees, its slopes covered with logs.
Carfrae, young and handsome, had once lived in the northern Nigeria city of Kaduna, another subjugated metropolis on the fringes of empire with echoes of “Rawalpindi and Dar-es-Salaam, Rangoon and Colombo” with its transplanted English landscape of bungalows, parties, snobbery, music and aging fashion. Carfrae, however, finding the British life suffocating and had attempted to hone a relationship with his troops. He did not know the local language, Hausa, so he launched into the task of learning it to a passable degree.
As the months had worn on, he came to feel genuine affection for the Africans under his charge — these tall, handsome men, their skin-jet black, their minds as sharp as that of any European, although Carfrae discovered they were ignorant about a great many things and lacked initiative. He began to turn “native,” spending the long, hot afternoon in the shade of a tree, pontificating on the war and its ramifications, in his halting Hausa.[lxvii] Many of his men adored him, although some thought he was paternalistic.
Carfrae, for his part, was impressed with “Mad Mike” Calvert. “He was a very fine commander, the finest I ever came across,” he said. “He was determined, enterprising, brave and a strong magnetic personality. He has been described as flamboyant, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t a show-off. He talked quietly, always gave his orders in a conversational rather than a peremptory tone. He was often quite vague in his conversation. But his soldiers would do anything for him. He was not mad at all or impetuous, despite his nickname…”[lxviii]
Calvert, in anticipation of the Japanese threat, had requested that artillery be flown in by gliders on the 5th and the West Africans of 29 Column had gone to work, unloading the weapons. When the work was done they were told to deploy at an exposed position among the jumble of wrecked gliders on the airstrip outside the stronghold wire. They spent the night with the jitters, the tension aggravated by the noises of gunfire as Japanese patrols probed the southern perimeter. When dawn came no one was more relieved than the Africans. Squadron Leader “Bobbie” Thompson appeared on the airstrip and led them into the fortress where they began to dig-in near a platoon of South Staffords who stared.
At 10 pm on the following night, Hayashi’s attack began. For the three hours, his artillery blasted away at the stronghold. The West Africans had already been given a taste of enemy fire that evening, when before dusk, they had been shelled by a large 5.9” Japanese mortar nicknamed the “coal scuttle,” which had been captured from the Germans after World War I.
The mortar fired a mortar bomb about five feet long which came onto the Chindit positions with an unearthly scream. Carfrae and some of the officers who had been lackadaisical in their digging of trenches, had scrambled for cover, leaping into a hole about 12 feet by six feet which they discovered was a garbage pit. The West Africans had dug trenches, but unlike the nearby Staffords, they had failed to place log branches or sleep logs on top for overhead cover.
Lt. Osborne was cowering in his position when he heard Calvert shouting to him, over the noise of the barrage: “Osborne, are you scared?”
Osborne, who was 34, three years older than the Brigadier, replied that he “most certainly was.” “Good!” came the resounding reply.
To their fortune, the West Africans were about 200 yards away from section of the perimeter the Japanese intended to attack, but every time an orange flare was shot up into the dark sky by one of the Chindit mortars, cautious Africans peeked up the end of their parapets, rifles ready, to see if they could spot the Japanese.
When the shelling died away, Hayashi sent three infantry battalions to punch a hole along the southeast perimeter of the stronghold, defended by the Lancashire Fusiliers, Gurkhas, and other West Africans of the 6th Nigerian Regiment, who had arrived much earlier.
Secure behind a row of machine guns with a line of mortars behind them, the defenders opened fire. Bullets and projectiles whipped through the air, the bright flashes of tracers lending an ethereal air to the proceedings. Rounds poured into the attacking Japanese who began to suffer heavy casualties. Determined bands of Japanese brought up Bangalore torpedoes to destroy the wire, but all malfunctioned. The battle went on for most of the night. At dawn, “Bobbie” Thompson summoned the Mustangs of the Air Commando who strafed and bombed the Japanese staging areas. Then more aircraft appeared from the south — Japanese medium bombers.
Twenty-seven bombed the stronghold, destroying the wire in places. When the bombing subsided, the Chindits braved the shelling to mend the breaches.
Allied Dakotas continued to arrive, despite an alarming incident on the night of April 7, when a Japanese fighter intercepted an Air Commando Dakota landing at Aberdeen. The Dakota pilot US Lt. Leo Tyszecki found his aircraft shuddering under the impact of gunfire. The landing gear was hit. One engine spluttered out, black smoke mingling with the darkness of the night, flaming licking at the edges. Tyszecki landed the aircraft intact and none on board were killed.[lxix]
It became clear that the Allies could no longer fly vulnerable transport across northern Burma without the benefit of Allied fighter patrols over the area. The transport planes were relegated to flights during dawn and dusk times, but they kept coming, concentrating reinforcements at White City. Fresh companies of troops materialized to take up station, until in the words of Lt. Norman Durant of the South Staffords, the place was a “complete babel, for it contained British troops, West Africans, Chinese, Burmans, a New Zealand RAF officer, Indians, and an American Neisei who acted as interpreter (or interrogator) of prisoners.”[lxx]
Large groups of West Africans landed, filling out the columns and battalions already at White City. The Africans, although initially viewed with some skepticism, quickly came into their own, impressing Calvert and the others with their quirks and courage.
Calvert wrote of being astounded by one Nigerian who had decided that a box full of grenades was more valuable than a bandolier of ammunition and a rifle — after he had used it to bash in the head of an attacking Japanese soldier. Whenever his column mounted a bayonet charge, Calvert was to witness this Nigerian, carrying his box. For all their racist beliefs, many Japanese soldiers interrogated after the end of the war were to express admiration of the Africans, for their courage and for the great lengths they went through to “rescue their dead and wounded after an action.”[lxxi]
The African ignorance of western methods, however, created some blunders which white troops found amusing. When first confronted by American K-rations, for example, the Africans had cooked everything, inside, including the mixture of cheese, the crackers, the lemonade powder and the chewing gum.[lxxii]
But the Africans were undeniably brave and clever. Captured Japanese interrogations of African prisoners revealed to Calvert the guile of his charges, as the following transcript, although likely apocryphal, testifies:
“Where have you come from?”
“We dropped from the sky.”
“How many are there of you?”
“Thousands upon thousands upon thousands, too many to count.”
“How did you come, by aeroplane, glider or what?”
“We just dropped.”
“Are you all parachutists?”
“Naturally. All African are parachutists.”
“When did you leave Africa?”
“It is so long ago I cannot remember.”
“How many African soldiers are there in India?”
“I think about a million.”
“You lie!” Thwack!
“I am sorry. I won’t lie again. Just over a million and a half.”
“What sort of armaments have you?”
“We have a huge new cannon, which a man can carry and fire without hurting himself.”
“What is the establishment of these?”
“‘Two to a company. Eight to a battalion. Sixteen to a division. Thirty-two to a corps —parachute corps.”
“How many parachute corps are there?”
“I do not know – two or three, I think.”
“Will you lead us to where you landed?”
“Of course. Why not?”
According to Calvert, the African led them to Broadway.[lxxiii] [lxxiv]
As the planes continued to bring in reinforcements, Calvert managed to muster roughly seven battalions in and around “White City” against Hayashi’s eight. The Japanese heavy weapons continued hit the defenders.
The Japanese infantry, however, were largely quiet, even docile, during the day, when the Chindits found they were able to wander about the paddy outside the perimeter with ease. As dusk approached, however, the Japanese became belligerent. At 5 pm, they would start shelling for a period, before sending in their infantry. When these were repulsed, they would become quiet again until at about 2 am, when a second ferocious assault would be launched, lasting until 4 am.
“The forces of evil would operate in the dark,” the Chindits began to say, “but at dawn, like creatures of a nightmare they would vanish away.”[lxxv]
At one point, Hayashi even sent two light tanks to force a breakthrough. As one emerged from the forest, leading the assault, it broke down. Lt. Osborne and his platoon of Nigerians watched on amazed as one of the crew emerged from within to calmly carry out repairs. “We were so amazed we forgot to shoot him,” he later said.[lxxvi] The Chindits brought up a 2-pounder anti-tank cannon (firing roughly a 40mm shell) and shot away a track, immobilizing the tank. The other quit the field, returning later to tow its crippled partner away.
The Commando Platoon of 20 Column (1st Lancashire Fusiliers), had for some time, been carrying hit-and-run and sabotage operations in the area. Now, they were deployed along the perimeter, with 2” mortars behind them. They had salvaged mortar bombs damaged in airdrops, attaching explosives to turn them into booby traps which they placed along Japanese lines of approach. They planted landmines, dug pits filled with sharpened stakes, but nothing seemed to faze the enemy, who continued to attack.
One eyewitness later described how the “Japs rushed blindly into our minefields and over our booby traps, and were blown to pieces or else mowed down like autumn corn by our riflemen and machine-gunners.” Piling up over the stronghold’s wire, hundreds died where they attempted to cross over; their bodies almost striped to the bone by the explosions of mortars and grenades. Scores were killed by their own Bangalore torpedoes as they tried to blow gaps in the wire. Such heroism should have earned for the Japanese universal admiration.
“There was a lot to admire in the Jap,” Calvert later wrote. “Given the same equipment as us or the Americans they would be amongst the finest and most dangerous soldiers in the world.”[lxxvii] To this John Masters added that nearly every Japanese would have won a Medal of Honor or a Victoria Cross had they been fighting for the Allied armies.[lxxviii] Instead, the Japanese adherence to bushido and their fanaticism, earned them the contempt of their enemies.
“The Japanese were stupid…always attacking in the same place,” said one Chindit commando, Private William Merchant, as hundreds of dead Japanese accumulated on the wire and decorated the surrounding landscape at White City.
When attacking, the Japanese made no attempt at surprise, yelling strange phrases such as “Tik Hai Johnny,” (Hindi for “It’s all right”), “Cease fire,” “Okay, Bill, stand down now…” which had the result of momentarily holding Chindit fire and triggering retorts, sometimes gamely, according to Private John Mattison, another commando. Shouts of “you dirty bastards,” “hairy English scum” “yellow nips” and other phrases to that effect hurled through the night air, followed by showers of grenades and bursts of gunfire.
When two of Mattison’s friends were killed, however, his jocularity ceased. He occupied a gap in the line where they had been killed, clutching a Bren, screaming: “Come on you yellow bastards.”
When heard a voice behind him shouting the same thing, Mattinson thought it was some of the men in the other bunkers. But it was someone standing behind him.
“Get down, you stupid bastard!” Mattinson called. “Are you tired of living?”
“All right now, it’s only me,” said the man. It was Brigadier Calvert.[lxxix]
More than troops, Calvert insisted that the planes bring in more ammunition and food. Vickers medium-machine gun ammunition alone was being consumed at such a rate that 700,000 rounds had to be airdropped into White City. The machine-gunners had strict orders never to fire until they had enough targets to warrant the firing of an entire belt in one go.[lxxx]
On April 10th, Lentaigne arrived to inform Calvert that Brigadier A.H. Gillmore’s 3rd West African Brigade would garrison the stronghold, allowing Calvert to lead a force to attack the Japanese from behind. Calvert’s command comprised the 3/6th Gurkhas, Lt-Colonel Charles Vaughn’s 7th Nigerians, the 450 surviving troops of Lt-Colonel Astell’s 45th Recce, and Lt-Colonel Christie’s 50 Column which had rejoined the brigade after its ventures in the north. In all, he had 2,400 troops.
Meantime, the rest of the 7th Nigerians had tromped into the encampment unceremoniously, having spent hours lying up in the jungle a few miles away, alarmed by the noise of battle emanating from the direction of White City, but unable to discover what was happening owing to their radio sets which refused to work. Eventually, contact was established after recce platoon commander, Lt. Jerry Bladen, was dispatched to investigate what was happening at White City. With the battalion reunited, Carfrae and 29 Column were told they were to join the rest of the 7th Nigerians in attacking the Japanese at Mawlu. Soon, the column occupied a deserted village “of no particular significance,”[lxxxi] as Carfrae put it, but within range of the Japanese attacking White City, while the rest of Calvert’s force marched on towards glory, or so the jealous 7th Nigerians believed.
Reality was more subdued. When Calvert realized that he and his troops were to serve as a large “floater” column — that phrase for an external, roving reserve inspired by the Duke of the Duke of Marlborough’s “skirmishers[lxxxii] who attacked from the flanks, he was anxious to get to grips with the enemy.
He decided to attack the village of Sepein, just south of Mawlu, where reports of a Japanese HQ were manifest. In the meantime, Hayashi had called off his attacks on White City on the 11th, and Calvert was determined to make the Japanese pay for their attacks. He set up his headquarter at the village of Thayaung, had his men clear an airstrip to evacuate the wounded by light plane and prepared his forces for attack at dawn on the 13th.
The 3/6th Gurkhas were to capture Sepein, while Christie’s 50 Column was to attack a truck park where the Nanthyan Chaung crossed the road. The Recces were move in between the 50 Column and 3/6th Gurkhas and search for Japanese artillery south of Sepein, while the 7th Nigerians were initially held in reserve at Thayaung village. But Calvert had made the same mistake that Fergusson had made — eager to surprise the enemy, he failed to scout the land in front of him.
The Gurkhas captured Sepein without undue problems, prompting Calvert to send Vaughn’s Nigerians to attack Mawlu. The 7th Nigerians made brisk progress, shooting scores of Japanese and capturing the railway station, prompting the Japanese defenders, mostly administrative personnel, to flee south in a rabble. Calvert had planned on this eventuality and had hoped to position Christie’s 50 Column to the southeast in ambush. But Christie’s troops were delayed by a firefight and could not get into position in time, allowing the 400-odd retreating Japanese to escape.
Mawlu was in Allied hands, but not for long. Vaughn’s Nigerians soon found themselves under heavy fire, pinned down for the next four hours under relentless Japanese firing and dive-bombing by Japanese aircraft that put in a surprise appearance.
Soon, the Gurkhas at Sepein also reported that they were under fire —from the main Japanese positions at the edge of the village, hidden under mounds of flowering lantana scrubs. The sight was inordinately beautiful — and lethal, concealing hordes of Japanese infantry, whose gunfire twinkled through the red, yellow, purple and green of the scrub. Calvert heaped Air Commando strikes and 25-pounder artillery barrages on them, with little effect.
Three Gurkha ground attacks failed to dislodge the defenders and the men were becoming dispirited. Calvert decided to withdraw. As dusk settled at Mawlu, Vaughn began to pull his troops out of Mawlu and under the cover of a mortar barrage, taking with him a large collection of vital documents and an even larger trove of Japanese ceremonial swords and military equipment, which would serve as presents for Air Commando and RAF aircrews at White City.
Christie’s men had reached their objective and had wiped out the trucks, advancing on to capture an entire regimental headquarters where other valuable documents were found.
As night fell, conflicting orders forced Carfrae’s 29 Column out of their positions and back into them. As the Nigerians were moving back, shattering gunfire and the sound of grenades nearby brought the group to a halt. Carfrae decided to hold where they were for the night.
At dawn, there came the noise of a single gunshot. A platoon commander appeared and told Carfrae that his best corporal and a Bren gunner had blundered into two Japanese in the bush the night before. The Bren gunner had shot them. An African had been killed by the Japanese in return. The morning’s shot had been the platoon commander dispatching one of the Japanese, who despite being wounded, had tried to throw a grenade at him. Carfrae gathered some of the Africans to go see their first dead Japanese. “The only person who was unnerved was the African sergeant major,” Cafrae wrote. “He roared like a bull on the parade ground, but was virtually useless for the rest of the campaign.” [lxxxiii]
When Carfrae went through the corpses, searching for important documents, he found several photographs on one: “a smiling girl with flowers in her hair; an old couple sitting stiffly on a bench; a young officer posing in a brand-new uniform, a sword hanging at his side. He had always thought of the Japanese as nothing but ‘dangerous vermin’ whom it was our job to destroy…Now, faced with this pathetic evidence of our common humanity, forced to acknowledge that the gulf between us could not after all be fundamental, I felt as much cheated as moved,” he said.[lxxxiv]
On April 17, Brigadier Gillmore radioed Calvert that unless the Japanese were removed from his perimeter, where they exerting force, it seemed likely that White City would be breached. This message, sent without the knowledge or the approval of 77th Brigade officers within White City, would cost Gillmore his command. He was replaced by “Abdy” Ricketts.
This signal, however, forced Calvert to refocus his attention on White City, against which the Japanese shelling remained active, with the “coal scuttle” taking a particularly heavy toll on the defenders. One shell had landed in dugout of the Japanese-speaking Captain Ryan, leaving him badly wounded. He was quickly evacuated by plane back to India and would later write Calvert about his recovery, although such letters could not disguise the pain he was in.
Calvert decided to get behind the enemy from the flanks and hit them from the rear, pinning them against the stronghold’s wire. Addressing a group of Chindits (most of them from the 45th Recce), in his characteristic quiet tone, Calvert explained that White City was feeling the strain from night attacks. “It is now up to us to bring them immediate relief at all cost.”[lxxxv] He also ordered 29 Column to hit the Japanese along their flanks.
On the night of 16/17 March, Carfare and his men accordingly prepared an ambush on the Mawlu-Henu road. For the longest time, time the trap sat unused, then at 4 pm, a truck came along. Carfrae had been imagining the ambush being sprung in the long hours of waiting. He would fire a flare and then his men would cut loose on the Japanese. Now, someone fired a PIAT (a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon) before he could do anything. The PIAT bomb fell short, exploding on the road. The Japanese abandoned the truck and ran off into the surrounding bush. Carfrae was livid.
The Nigerians again settled down and waited. There was a chance that the ambush location had been reported to Hayashi’s headquarters, but still the Nigerians waited. After what seemed like an eternity, at dusk on the following day, a group of at least seven trucks were seen slowly coming down the road from the north, towards them. Japanese infantry were walking ahead of the trucks, apparently looking for mines on the road.
When the Japanese were a scarce few feet away, Carfrae’s flare went off as he had intended and the Nigerians opened fire en masse. Bullets smacked into the metal skin of the trucks, some angrily ricocheting off. The leading vehicle erupted into flames, but the Nigerians kept pouring fire until Carfrae blew his whistle to stop the firing. The smell of cordite hung pungently, the air thick with smoke. Groaning came from piles of Japanese lying all along the road. Carfrae sent two platoons to mop up. For the loss of five dead, his column had inflicted 42 Japanese deaths. His men captured three Japanese, and Carfrae gave his men special instructions not to kill them. The Africans were puzzled. At this moment, a commotion broke out nearby. A Japanese NCO who was playing dead, his tunic daubed with blood, had been pulled from a truck by an unsuspecting Nigerian.
The man, screaming indecipherable Japanese, unearthed a bayonet and tried to push into the nearest African. A sergeant shot him with a pistol.[lxxxvi]
When the gleeful Africans later recounted this battle to the white troops of the 45th Recce, they earned swift congratulations. “We began to feel a real affection for our black comrades-in-arms,” said one recce member, Trooper N. P. Aylen.[lxxxvii]
Soon Calvert had realized that his floater group had trapped 2,000 angry Japanese within the half-mile tract of land separating his troops from White City. He instructed his men to infiltrate forward that noon, led by Lt-Colonel Astell’s Recces. When the Japanese discovered that they had hemmed in, they fell upon Calvert’s men. At this moment, Rickett’s Nigerians in White City attacked the Japanese. Chaos erupted within the Japanese ranks.
Calvert’s forward headquarters became caught up in a Japanese attack, the enemy bullets tearing into the Chindit mules which had been stand insouciantly above the trenches. Calvert watched in angst as the Japanese machineguns stitched neat rows of bullet holes across the mule’s bodies, bringing them crashing down.[lxxxviii]
By 1 pm, the Japanese were so close that Calvert could hear their voices. Minutes later, the Air Commandos arrived. Under the relentless barrage of bombing and machine-gunning, the Japanese guns fell silent. Reeling from combat fatigue, Calvert returned to his headquarters at Thayaung, where he discovered that Captain MacPherson had been killed. Grief overcame him. “He can’t be,” he said to his brigade-major Francis Stuart.
“I saw him shot through the forehead,” Stuart said.
“I don’t believe Ian is dead,” Calvert announced and prepared to return to the battle to find MacPherson’s body.
Stuart rushed outside and thrust his revolver into his stomach. “I’ll shoot you if don’t go back [into the HQ],” he said. “I was with him when he was killed.”[lxxxix]
After the battle, Calvert found that he had lost 70 men killed and 150 wounded. At dawn on April 17th, the Japanese mounted their last major attack on White City, with a battalion concentrating against OP Hill, held by a single platoon commanded by 35-year-old Lt. David Scholey, a decorator before the war. From positions on an adjoining hill, Lt. Norman Durant’s machinegun platoon had a magnificent view of the battle as it unfolded.
Many of the mendid not think much of Scholey, considering him to be a pansy. During the march to White City, he had carried a butterfly net in his pack and spoke about the merits of “May Day” and the start of Spring, to his men. The tough Lt. Durant regarded him as a little “precious” (overdelicate and pretentious), but was to soon swallow his words. Scholey and his platoon put up a magnificent defense. When by sheer weight of numbers, the Japanese breached the perimeter, the British kept fighting, lost droves until only Scholey and 16 men remained. The held the Japanese at bay until reinforcements, in form of West Africans, arrived.
The Japanese deftly withdrew barring one man who remained, defiantly holding the trench he had captured, braving grenades thrown by over a dozen men. He could have surrendered; instead, he leaped up over the trench with rifle and bayonet charged. An African soldier dropped his rifle, and picked up a wooden box contained 12 grenades. He brought it down on the Japanese soldier’s the head, killing him. Both the Japanese and the African deserved a medal. Scholey, however, received a deserved Military Cross.[xc] Sadly, he was to die in combat at Mogaung, later in the campaign.
Calvert estimated that the 24th Independent Mixed Brigade had suffered 3,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing in the offensive since April 1. An estimated 700 Japanese had died killed out of the 6,600 men who attempted to take White City. Such was the extent of the carnage that towards the end of April, allied transport pilots flying overhead reported that they could smell the stench of the unburied dead. The survivors escaped south beyond Indaw. The Japanese were to never attack the stronghold again.
Calvert felt he could hold White City indefinitely, but Lentaigne, who worried about the imminent monsoon, had other ideas. He ordered that White City and Broadway be abandoned, in favor of another stronghold, codenamed Blackpool, sixty miles north, closer to Stilwell’s Chinese, near Hopin. John Masters’ 111th Brigade which had experienced a largely quiet, if exhausting campaign so far, was to build the stronghold.
Lentaigne feared that onset of the monsoon rains in May would render the dirt airstrips at the strongholds into fields of slush. His conventional training, according to the eminent historian Louis Allen, also told him that it would better to concentrate his forces north along the railway line, to be closer to Stilwell’s advance to Myitkyina, not have them dispersed in columns.[xci]
Accordingly, on May 3, orders came that “Special Force is to assist Stilwell capture and hold line Mogaung-Myitkyina.”[xcii] For Calvert and his men who had sacrificed much to hold White City, however, the order was anathema. They opposed giving up what they had fought for in this indirect way. The added danger of being closer to static frontlines meant increased contact with heavily defended positions — something that the Chindits had never trained for, or had the heavy weapons to do handle.
Calvert’s signals to Lentaigne began to acquire an air of insubordination even though Major Stuart attempted to stop some of these, until Lentaigne flew into Broadway on May 8, to personally explain why it was necessary to go north. Calvert protested that these plans were a “death trap.”
“I have not seen you like this before, Michael,” Lentaigne responded. “If you really do feel like that, I will have to relieve you.”[xciii] That stopped Calvert in his tracks. It was to prove a mistake.
Calvert should have been allowed to hold White City, while Lentaigne concentrated the other brigades in the area to create an impenetrable block which would have severed Japanese forces in northern Burma into two, cutting off and isolating all enemy forces in the Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys. But Lentaigne was adamant, and anyway, as he pointed out, he was in the act of withdrawing many Chindit units from the field of battle which would have left White City isolated.
Already, the consensus of opinion was that Ferguson’s 16th Brigade had shot its bolt. It was to be evacuated back to India, and Aberdeen abandoned. The 45th Recce and the 2nd Queens were ordered to Broadway from where they would be flown out. The Queens were in a state of nervous breakdown, according to Color Sergeant Atkins. “We were in not too good shape. We were tired, it was nerve-wracking; one very rarely spoke above a whisper. There was always uncertainty: was one going to be ambushed or not?”[xciv]
Meantime, Blaine’s Detachment, which had been operating even further south of the 111th Brigade, still led by Lt. Binnie, were ordered to Aberdeen, from where they were flown to India. Captain Hugh Patterson who had led the Commando Platoon of Christie’s 50 Column (Lancashires), in successful demolition raids north of Mawhun, was told to travel to Broadway for evacuation to India. Patterson, weakened by Malaria and a knee wound, was informed he would be flown out ahead of his platoon.
The plane had intended to fly to Sylhet in Assam, but a severe storm forced them land at an airstrip on the Imphal plain. On the plane had been Lentaigne. “Here was had an insight into our new commander’s character,” Patterson wrote later. “He was met by a major on the strip who told the general he would show him to his basha [hut/house]. Lentaigne turned to the other occupants of the plane, who had no blankets or groundsheets — and it was cold out there — and we were all seriously ill, and told them to sleep under the wings of the plane.”
Patterson and the other men on the plane were incredulous. “One could not help thinking of the reply Wingate would have given to anyone who suggested that he should fare better than his men,” Patterson said. Fortunately for the group, the major returned, showed the men to an old basha and ensured that they were served tea, biscuits, and fried bacon.[xcv]
Many Chindit formations were not as fortunate and maintained operations in Burma. Brodie’s 14th Brigade, joined by the 3rd West Africans were to attack to the rear of Mataguchi’s 15th Army, still fighting in India, while Calvert’s 77th Brigade was handed the important task of seizing the key city of Mogaung — on the southern flank of Stilwell’s advance to Myitkyina. For Calvert, this new order was a sort of slap in the face. His brigade had been once again called to do the heavy lifting, while other brigades who had managed less had been given middling tasks. By all rights, the 77th Brigade should have been evacuated to India, with the task of capturing Mogaung undertaken by the 111th, the 14th or the 3rd West African brigades. But Lentaigne wanted his best troops in the fray — and for the 77th Brigade, continued operations became a consequence of being the best.[xcvi] As Captain Richard Rhodes James later pointed out, “77th Brigade achieved an enormous amount” in the campaign without assistance “unlike the other brigades” which seemed to falter and fail.[xcvii]
In any case, Lentaigne seriously seemed to have believed that the brigade had a quick, short fight ahead of them. He expressed confidence that once the Chindits linked up with the Chinese at Mogaung, the Chindit campaign would be over — and not a moment too soon, as they were rapidly approaching the 90 day operating limit set by Wingate. All the brigade had to do was secure Mogaung, and then everyone could go home.
Accordingly the troops began to pull out of White City on May 9/10, with Dakotas arriving that night to take out the 25-pounder guns, the wounded, the stores and the mules. The stronghold, like Broadway, was then booby-trapped and abandoned to be consumed by the jungle once again.
As Fergusson flew over Aberdeen from Broadway, headed for India, he noticed that his erstwhile domain was almost deserted. The local villagers had fled into the jungle fearing Japanese retribution. Fergusson felt a deflating sensation. He had told the natives he would protect them until the war ended, promising them all manner of benefits, including healthcare and food deliveries, courtesy of the British government. Now, here he was going home.
One of his officers Captain “Bill” Smythies, whom Fergusson had appointed as the civil governor in the area, had lambasted Fergusson for breaking all his promises to the locals, and for leading them up “a garden path.” But it was war, Fergusson wrote later. Such things happened.
Smythie, for his part, refused to leave and stayed with the locals for a time.[xcviii] As the weeds, the trees and foliage overcame Aberdeen, only the Chindit and Air Commando graves, the trash and the memories remained to indicate that 16th Brigade had ever been there.[xcix]
When Fergusson arrived at Lalghat hours later, night had long since fallen. He was sound asleep in the aircraft when it landed, curled up on the floor. A flashlight shone into his eyes, and he opened them to see the smiling faces of “Katie” Cave and Brigadier Tulloch. It was 2 am on May 3rd. Fergusson realized with a sort of indifference that it was his 33rd birthday. [c]
A FINE SLOG IN THE MUD
When on May 17th, Slim — who had never fully appreciated the value of the Chindits egregiously handed Stilwell the entirety of “Special Force,” everyone was aghast, not least of all Stilwell.
He did not want British troops and certainly not Wingate’s men. He did not trust them, believed they would not trust him, and most important of all —he did not want them to abandon White City which had been worth a king’s ransom for its panache and ability to prevent supplies from reaching the Japanese 18th Division fighting his units in Mogaung Valley.[ci] He also feared that the Chindits would draw up a masse of Japanese combat forces from Central Burma in their wake — imperiling his own advance.[cii]
What Stilwell wanted most of all was for Chiang to commit his idle divisions in Yunnan province into battle. They faced a single Japanese division — the 56th Division — which could be routed with some skill. When Chiang demurred, complaining that his divisions were needed to combat other Japanese units in the Yangtze River Valley, Stilwell grew furious. He demanded that Chiang release, what he began to call “Yoke Force,” to strengthen the advance on Myitkyina, and help drum the Japanese out of northern Burma. Chiang remained unmoved.
Stilwell seethed, but not all was gloom. His faith in the Chinese fighting man had been restored by the Chinese 66th Regiment’s capture of Jambu Bum, the ridge separating the Hukawng Valley from the Mogaung Valley on March 19 — Stilwell’s 61st birthday. In celebration, Stilwell’s officers arranged for a large chocolate cake to be brought to the Stilwell’s jungle bivouac, an accomplishment that highlighted the mastery of American logistics.
By now, Merrill’s Marauders had also outflanked Tanaka’s 18th Division and were streaming south. But the 2nd Battalion had run into trouble at Shaduzup, the first major town south of the Jambu Bum, in the last week of March. Scouts reported a large party of Japanese on the banks of the Mogaung River. Many had been bathing and using grenades for fishing. The scouts also reported the discovery of massive encampment with large quantities of food and clothing. The men estimated the enemy strength at about 100-200 men — a company.[ciii]
Major Caifson Johnson, commander of Combat Team (CT) White decided to attack. Six platoons would ford the river at night and attack at dawn.
When the sun rose, the Marauders could hear the Japanese “jabbering” and the first of the cooking fires could be seen. Johnson and his men went in with bayonets fixed. The Japanese were caught by surprise. Some of the soldiers were half-dressed or in latrines. Bullets, bayonets and shrapnel ripped through the Japanese. Those that survived ran for dear life into the jungle. At that moment, a truck carrying cooked potatoes and other soldiers blundered into the camp and straight into the path of American machinegun fire.
Gunfire smacked into the hapless vehicle. The windshield shattered and crumbled. The driver was killed and the men in the back fell over dead like sacks of their cargo. Once the last of the Japanese had been captured or killed, the Marauders took possession of the camp. A sort of ravenous appetite brought on by days of marching in the jungle with just K-rations for sustenance and a bloodlust that victory was only starting to satiate, overcame the Marauders who fell upon the captured booty of fresh food.
As they sat, eating from their “utensil canteens and whatnot,” one private stared at the red coating on the potatoes and wondered aloud what it was. “Those are red-skinned potatoes,” offered Private First Class Ted “Zak” Zakotnik. It was actually the blood of the Japanese bodies in the truck.[civ]
Later that evening, Chinese reinforcements arrived and relieved the Marauders who went back across the river and dug-in. The Japanese, driven from Shaduzup, brought in 75mm and heavy artillery guns, unleashing heavy fire on CT White. Deadly tree bursts left the Marauders whimpering as shrapnel and sharp pieces of wood screamed through the air. One tree burst exploded right over a foxhole occupied by two men. All the medics could do was throw dirt back into the foxhole which had now become a grave.
Merrill ordered the 2nd Battalion to organize at a place called Nhpum Gha, in the mountains, on the right flank of the man advance. The 3rd Battalion was to march five miles further north to Hamshingyang, where there was an airstrip to be used for evacuations and supply drops.
But getting to Nhpum Ga, at the peak of a knoll, surrounded by slopes of deep mud, proved a struggle for the weary 2nd Battalion. The battalion’s mules, which had been largely starved for lack of food, could scarcely climb, falling frequently. They could only be brought back to their feet when the Marauders took the supplies off their backs. Japanese artillery barrages which had been intermittent during the climb escalated when Marauders reached the summit, followed by attacks from determined groups of Japanese infantry. The Americans began to hastily dig-in, creating a wagon-wheel-like perimeter of roughly 400 meters in diameter. The first attack proved a probing reconnaissance in force and for their first night on the hill, March 28/29, the Marauders were untroubled save for the isolated artillery and mortar fire hurled their way.
They were not to know it yet, but a catastrophic series of blows awaited them. First, Frank Merrill collapsed on the 28th after suffering a heart attack at Galahad’s field headquarters, near Hamshingyang. The last aircraft had already flown off as darkness came, and Merrill could not be moved until the next day. He was placed in an improvised shelter.
“Vinegar Joe” agreed that Merrill must be evacuated and handed over command of the Marauders to Hunter, but not the rank.[cv] Merrill would not fly out until March 31st, but by this time, the Americans on Nhpum Ga were already in serious trouble. A thousand men found themselves under siege from three sides on the hill by an enemy who proved untiring and unafraid. The 3rd Battalion at Hamshingyang sent a force to relieve the troops but this force ran into a Japanese roadblock and was pinned down.
Back at Nhpum Ga, Japanese artillery and mortar fire was gradually picking off the men and mules, wrote Marauder Lt. Fred Lyons[cvi]. There was no stream nearby and the men began to run out of water. Desperate men began to cut bamboo stalks to get the trickle of water collected inside and trying to get at the dirty water collecting in elephant tracks. Halazone water purifying tablets and even lemonade drops were tried to make such water palpable, but it still tasted like chalk and mud.
McGee radioed headquarters revealing the desperation of the situation: “We have been hit on three sides. Platoon from [Combat Team] Orange was cut off and are making their way back through the jungle. Our rear is blocked. I cannot withdraw north. Something has to come up to take the pressure off. Casualty report today three dead, nine wounded … We will need sixty and eighty-one [mortar] ammo tomorrow badly.”[cvii]
As McGee’s radio broadcasts became increasingly desperate, Dakotas appeared overhead, dropping supplies. Morale soared, but the Nhpum Ga remained a place of the dead and the dying. It was christened “Maggot Hill” as the stench of the dead mules and horses, and men (both American and Japanese) grew worse.
The airdrops continued. The cooks of the regiment’s rear echelon in Ledo, hearing of the plight of their fighting men, put together a special treat and the troops who had subsisted on coffee and cigarettes for the last eight days, found crate loads of fried chicken. The fighting on the perimeter was only 300 yards away, but within drop zone, another sort of scuffle took place as GIs elbowed each other to get a share of the chicken. As the feast was being passed out at the second line of defense, a Japanese artillery barrage began, smashing the revelry.
The siege was finally broken in the first week of April, after the 1st Battalion, suffering from privations of its own, including dysentery and shortage of rations, marched from Shaduzup to within striking distance of the Japanese besieging the 2nd Battalion.
The attacking force numbered only about 250 men, but deployed for a flank attack to the west and east on April 7. They expected a hard slog, but a captain from the battalion inadvertently discovered the location of the Japanese artillery while walking on a trail between Kauri and Nhpum Ga. He called up an ad hoc Marauder artillery team, led by Staff Sergeant John Acker, which had been trying for some time to knock out the Japanese guns.
Acker had originally been in charge of pack animals for Combat Team Khaki when he had mentioned to the CO, Major Edwin Briggs, that it would be nice to have some artillery of their own to give the Japanese hell. When the major asked him if he had any artillery experience, Acker, without thinking had said he had previously served in the 98th Field Artillery.
Briggs had immediately requested 75mm pack howitzers be airdropped, and now Acker had found himself under command of a battery of guns.
The captain told Acker that his fire was pummeling the empty landscape 400 yards behind the Japanese guns. Acker’s team adjusted fire and opened up again.
“He [the captain] reported we were two or three hundred feet short of the target, but right in line,” Acker said. On my next order to fire three rounds… He reported we were right on target. The Japs were squealing and running all around. He watched as we pulverized the area and responded we had destroyed their artillery. What a day! We never heard from that artillery again. This eased the pressure on the hill a lot.”[cviii] In the midst of their exhilaration, the men suddenly realized that it was Good Friday. That same day, the combined efforts of both the 1st and 3rd Battalions broke the siege of Nhpum Ga.
On Easter Sunday, Major Briggs and Lt-Colonel Hunter walked into the village at the head of a long column of reinforcements. McGee greeted them warmly. The Americans reported 52 men killed and 163 wounded on Nhpum Ga. Another 77 were ill. The Japanese suffered an estimated 400 dead.
The Marauders were pulled from the line for rest and rehabilitation while the Chinese forged ahead. By the middle of April, Stilwell had five Chinese divisions fighting down the Mogaung Valley. In contrast, the Japanese 18th Division had three depleted regiments. By May 19, Colonel Sun of the Chinese 38th Division announced his intention to capture Kamaing. His troops, now battle-hardened, outflanked Tanaka and came up behind the Japanese, seizing a major base with eight warehouses full of food and ammunition.[cix]
At first, Tanaka was astounded and then infuriated when one of his commanders, Colonel Aida quit his positions at the village of Lavon, seven miles east of Kamaing, leaving a gaping hole in Tanaka’s flanks. Sun saw his chance. So far, only his 112th Regiment had outflanked the Japanese. If they could maintain their hold, Tanaka’s entire division would be caught in the bag.
By now, the Chindits were moving up to their positions north. Masters’111th Brigade had been west of the Irrawaddy when it received orders to establish a block on the railway near Hopin. The plan was Lentaigne’s, backed by Slim and a reluctant Stilwell. Yet, the brigade’s temporary commanding officer, John Masters,[cx] who had long known Lentaigne and trusted him, distrusted it.
It smacked too much of Wingate’s recent doctrine of tactical immobility. For Masters, jungle warfare translated to mobile warfare, with the jungle serving as a haven. This business of strongholds was anathema to jungle warfare, and what was worse, his brigade was tired. The 111th Brigade had been in the field for 45 days — half of the original timeframe for operations —but had been marching all over the countryside, from Tigyaing to Pinlebu, crossing streams and rivers, hills and mountains. It was also depleted. Many of the platoons within the King’s own Rifles and the Cameronians had suffered 50 percent casualties, with an average platoon strength of 25 men as opposed to 40.[cxi]
Masters wanted them withdrawn to India, and the troops had gotten it into their heads that their fight was almost over.[cxii] There was also another reason why Masters wanted to return to India: his fiancé, Barbara, was now in advanced pregnancy with his child.
But orders were orders and the men marched north, the journey proving every bit as arduous as before. Major “Doc” Whyte insisted on taking the seriously ill and the wounded from other columns with the brigade HQ, which meant that force moved slowly, along a long trail of casualties. Masters was annoyed, “but we talked him into it,” Whyte said, adding: “An excellent person — John Masters.”
The medical staff arranged for casualty evacuations from time to time, and some “Grasshoppers” would arrive. Once, a plane crashed on takeoff. The pilot who survived, extricated himself from the ruins of his craft, and said: “Aw shit, I ought to be shot.”
Said Whyte, “You soon will be; the Japs are coming.”
Two other men onboard had died and the medical team buried them in the jungle. “I said a prayer and moved on, knowing that the shallow grave would not keep the jackals out,” Whyte said.[cxiii]
The site chosen for Blackpool (originally codenamed “Clydeside”) was a stretch of hilly ground by the railway, near the village of Namkwin, some 32 km (20 miles) southwest of Mogaung. There was water and suitable places to build an airstrip and deploy the 25-pdr artillery guns — when they got them. Beyond a large tract of paddy was a hill, which the troops christened “Blackpool Hill” which curved like the sharp-spined back of a wild boar, with the head down, fore-arms and legs extended sideways. The location, however, was poor. It was too far from the railway to make much of an impression, and too near the Japanese lines with positions which could be easily occupied by the enemy. It boasted of high ground but was surrounded on two sides by ground that was higher.
The site was chosen by Masters, possibly via suggestions from Lentaigne and his staff. But Masters, who as a junior officer did not have the necessary experience to handle a brigade, apparently did not realize right away that he had made a grave mistake and none of his more experienced battalion commanders chose to warn him.
The site was occupied on the night of May 5/6, and Masters spent the entirety of the following day setting up defenses. What he should have done was immediately attack the Japanese-held village of Namkwin just ahead of his positions. Instead, he busied himself with preparing the stronghold. It was a critical mistake, and says much about the lack of enterprise from the brigade.
Save for 25 animals, Masters had all his beasts of burden sent to the brigade’s rear base at Mokso Sakan, where they would be safe from enemy fire. Trenches and mortar pits were dug, while 200 men, stripped to the waist, their rifles and submachineguns still strapped to their backs, worked under the blaze of a merciless sun, clearing paddy ground for an airstrip. By early afternoon, Masters was told the airstrip was ready for the gliders. The call went out to India. By twilight, several gliders appeared. One flown by US Flight Officer Hadley D. Baldwin came under heavy Japanese fire from Namkwin village, stalled and plunged straight into the ground, killing all three men inside. The others, their crews ashen-faced, landed intact. Two bulldozers and a grader were unloaded from the craft and went to work on the airstrip.
By 4 pm on the following day, May 7, the airstrip was ready for the Dakotas and Masters asked for heavy weapons to be delivered as soon as possible. He knew the Japanese had used light tanks at White City and the last thing he wanted was to fight Japanese tanks without adequate weaponry.
As night fell, the Dakotas appeared, circling the valley, their navigation lights blinking under the starry sky, the noise of their engines heartening the troops as though they were about to receive manna from heaven. The first plane touched down and veered off the lit airstrip, ploughing into the surrounding bush. Cameronians nearby took off running behind it, eager to help. The second landed intact. The third had its wheels ripped out on a paddy bund and slid forward into the bush on its belly. The fourth landed perfectly.
Cameronians investigating the third plane found it dark and the door open. An engineering officer Geoffrey Birt stooped to loon under the wing, and saw someone throw a grenade. Birt dived for cover and the grenade went off under the wing. The Dakota caught fire and the Cameronians rushed forward into the bush, guns blazing. The fifth Dakota, which was in the process of landing saw the burning C-47 and the airstrip lights twinkle and fizzle out as the fire cut the electrical lines. The Dakota increased throttle and climbed hard, the roar of its engines resounding over the camp.
The crew of the fourth Dakota, meantime, seeing the blazing C-47 and hearing the noise of gunfire, slammed shut their door and with the engines roaring to power, attempted to take off down the darkened airstrip. The aircraft’s wingtip struck the wing of the second Dakota and the aircraft veered off the strip. Its crew hastily cut power to the engines, saving their lives. Two Dakotas had been destroyed and two damaged. The first airlift to Blackpool was concluded.[cxiv]
It would soon transpire that the brigade would have no time to settle into its new camp. Lt-General Takeda’s 53rd Japanese Division (having rushed through empty Broadway and White City), tore into the zone in strength. The first attack began on May 8.
With 105mm guns firing from up the valley, Japanese railway troops from Pinbaw attacked for the next five nights, held at bay by the rifles and machine guns of the King’s own Rifles, and the mortars, which Masters had gathered from the battalions and wielded as single battery of eight.
Despite the strong defense, in one section of the northern line nicknamed the “Deep” — which was the tip of the “boar’s nose,” the Japanese were as close as 10 to 20 yards from the wire. Enemy snipers took shots at anything that moved while the King’s own snipers and Bren gunners occupied hidden places among the shattered trees, firing whenever they saw the target, after which a cry would resound amid the quiet that followed: “got him!”
The Japanese brought up a single 75mm artillery piece from Pinbaw, with which they shelled the camp, blasting the airstrip with impunity and setting the gliders and Dakotas on fire, until May 13 when Masters came into possession of three airlifted 25-pdr guns, allowing him to hit back. Overhead Cochran’s Air Commandos mounted sortie after sortie against the Japanese positions but it was clear they could not maintain the ante. The dark clouds of the monsoon were gathering in strength.
A crisis was developing at the “Deep.” An earlier attempt to relieve the pressure with a clearing maneuver by two platoons had met dismal failure after the force commander was killed and several men wounded. Within days, the extent of close-quartered fighting at the position had “reached the limit of human tolerance.”
It was imperative to force the Japanese back. The Chindit mortar teams were ordered to remove the secondary charges from their bombs, which when fired from the center of the camp, fell only five or 10 yards from the forward wire. To augment the mortars, Masters summoned Allied aircraft to drop 250lb bombs just near his forward positions. Masters estimated that if the strike was accurate he would kill 20 of his men, 40 if it was inaccurate.
Six American Mustangs appeared, carrying out repeated bombing and strafing runs east to west across the outer wire. In concert, the Chindit machineguns and mortars opened fire against the enemy-held ground. The earth seemed to shake under the weight of allied fire. The sounds of gunfire and explosions blotted out all noise. Trees, withered by fire, crashed to the earth, the leaves vanished. The Mustangs continued their dives and climb, their .50-cal machineguns chattering, the noise masked and added to the crescendo of hell unleashed upon that piece of earth.
Gradually the noise subsided, replaced by an unearthly silence. For the longest time, no one moved. Then bands of Chindits left their positions to recover their dead and the wounded. Masters claimed there were no Chindit casualties.[cxv] As for the space beyond the wire. Not a living thing moved anywhere within 200 yards of Blackpool’s perimeter, save for a solitary sniper who continued to fire for the remainder of the day. Masters again summoned the Air Commandos, this time B-25 Mitchells, and bombed the area beyond that 200 yards of denuded, churned earth.
The Japanese retaliated through a single heavy mortar, firing 60lb bombs (in comparison, Chindit’s standard 81mm mortar fired a 10lb bomb). The days went past in an unending blur of mud, rain and blood, punctuated by fantastic pyrotechnics. “The ‘Deep’ sector looked like Passchendale,” wrote Masters. “Blasted trees, feet blasted trees, feet and twisted hands sticking up out of the earth, bloody shirts, ammunition clips, holes half full of water, each containing two pale, huge-eyed men, trying to keep their rifles out of the mud, and over all the heavy, sweet stench of death, from our own bodies and entrails lying unknown in the shattered ground, from Japanese corpses on the wire, or fastened, dead and rotting, in the trees.”[cxvi] When the rain fell, it fell hissing upon the gutted forest.
The enemy artillery continued to take a killing toll on the camp with their near continuous fire. As the brigade’s casualties rose, Masters demanded sound-ranging and flash-spotting equipment so that he could retaliate against the Japanese artillery.[cxvii]
In the meantime, as the rain churned Blackpool into slush and as trenches and foxholes overflowed with water, and as his casualties continued to rise, Masters felt rage overcome him. “Where in the name of God were the floater brigades? White City had been evacuated thirteen days earlier and 14 Brigade was supposed to come straight up here. My brigade had marched 140 route miles in 14 days to establish this block. Surely those bloody nitwits could cover 120 route miles in thirteen days? Where the hell were they? Where were the West Africans?…Twenty bloody battalions, forty flaming columns of Chindit bullshit sat on their arses and drank eat and wondered how we were getting on.”[cxviii]
There is no doubt that Masters felt his brigade occupied a lonely outpost in the midst of enemy territory. In reality, Calvert’s 77 Brigade was recuperating in the hills to the east, before their big push to Mogaung. Some of Calvert’s troops could even see Blackpool from their lofty perches at Lamai in the Loiyang Hills, seven miles away. Meanwhile, the 14th Brigade and 3rd West Africans were still arriving, to take positions on the hills to the west.
On May 17, a force of US P-38 Lightning fighters patrolled the valley, hunting for the Japanese artillery. They failed to spot the guns, by now had been reinforced with even heavier 155mm guns, which together with enemy mortars positions on a ridge 1,000 yards ahead, began to pummel the camp. The fire became concentrated on the King’s own in the “Deep.”
Major Heap, second-in-command of the battalion came over the radio. “We’ve had it, sir,” he said. “They are destroying all the posts, direct hits all the time…all machine guns knocked out, crews killed…I don’t think we can hold them off…”[cxix]
Masters immediately rang up Major Tim “Breezy” Brennan, commanding 26 Column (Cameronians). The entire column was to get to the ridge crest, with all their supporting weapons and take over the defense of the “Deep.”
“Yes, sir,” Brennan said pleasantly, as if he had no inkling of the debacle at the “Deep.” Masters rang off and hurried to oversee the relief first-hand, accompanied by his mortar officer, Major Johnny Boden. Masters felt certain the Japanese would attack the moment the King’s own left their positions. Boden’s mortars were to lay down a smokescreen to cover the withdrawal. But strangely, when Masters arrived the place was silent. There was no shelling, no gunfire. The dull light of twilight loomed. Masters couldn’t fathom it. The Japanese should have been sweeping the slope he and Boden were standing on with machinegun fire. The ground was already pockmarked with thousands of pits and indentations characteristic of small-arms fire, but there was nothing now.
Brennan and his men arrived over the small ridge overlooking the deep. Masters told Boden to lay down smoke ahead of the perimeter. As the smoke landed where it should, Brennan and his men raced down the slope towards the “Deep.” Masters flinched. Surely, the Japanese would fire now. The Cameronians jumped into the waterlogged trenches. Yet, still nothing from the Japanese. The King’s own were trudging up the slope towards Masters. There was nothing to stop them; not a shell, a bullet or a well-thrown stone. The white smoke swirled under a dusky breeze, the clink of the fabric and metal of the soldier’s kit made a rhythmic noise, their boots thudding on the wet earth, as the voices of the enthusiastic Cameronians could be heard as they identified the best defensive spots and cursed the water in the trenches.
The Cameronian support teams arrived, bent over, human mules lugging heavy machine guns and ammunition boxes. Major Heaps’ King’s own passed Masters slowly, accusingly, their tunics bloodied, their eyes red, unfocused and haunted, their mouths open, gasping.
“I wanted to cry,” Masters wrote. “But dared not. I could only mutter, ‘Well done, well done,’ as they passed.”[cxx]
Still, the Japanese did nothing. Masters had barbed wire, ammunition sent down to Brennan. He had the Cameronian machineguns deployed in trenches on the crest, from where they could sweep the entire front with fire. Darkness came and with it rain. An hour passed in silence, broken only by the muffled voices of the Cameronians. Damned mystifying. Then the Japanese fury began anew.
With a great cymbal of machineguns and mortars, the battle was joined. All night it raged. The Cameronian machineguns took a killing toll on the attackers. Twice, the Japanese — mostly older conscripts from Kyoto — breached with wire with Bangalore torpedoes, only to be halted by the mortars. At 4 am, the Japanese launched a final counterattack. Not for the glory or the emperor or even to attain the “Deep,” but to recover the bodies of the dead and the dying. The Cameronians unleashed hell. The Japanese fell back in disarray.
When, next morning, when a British patrol explored the hills across from the perimeter, they found that the Japanese had gone, their mortar pits empty, the machinegun dugouts abandoned, the trenches unnatural in their emptiness. The patrols reported that the forest was full of blood and broken bodies. Mass graves had been dug and filled. Japanese bodies lay haphazardly in stream beds and in blast craters while thousands of spent cartridge cases glinted upon the oozing, primordial earth.
Masters later estimated — based on the post-war interrogations of Japanese officers who spoke of the 53rd Division losing an entire regiment near Hopin — that the Japanese had suffered 800 to a thousand casualties. In contrast, the 111th Brigade had suffered 200 casualties (mostly King’s own troops). Japanese heroism had given the Allies a critical victory. The men of 111th Brigade were now not only the lords of the Blackpool but also the surrounding countryside for a mile around.[cxxi] But everyone knew this was not to last.
As the rains continued to fall Masters began to send out increasingly urgent messages to headquarters, calling for Brodie’s 14th Brigade to come up as soon as possible, for when the Japanese attacked again —and Masters was certain they would — they could be trapped between both brigades and annihilated.
As the drumbeat of the impasse continued to beat, reinforcements arrived to join Blackpool: Lt-Colonel “Scottie” Scott’s 2nd King’s Regiment (Liverpool) and 900 troops of Lt-Colonel Alec Harper’s 3/9th Gurkhas —both formerly of Colonel Rome’s command at Broadway, who managed to get in before the rains flooded the Namyin Chaung outside the perimeter. Masters noted that both units were tired, but sent the King’s back out to locate and destroy the still unscathed Japanese artillery to the north.
The Gurkhas were assigned to perimeter defense as Masters withdrew the King’s own from the line. The Gurkhas were not a Chindit battalion in the proper sense, having been trained as a garrison force.[cxxii] They had fought valiantly defending Broadway, and Masters expected much of the same from them, aware of the categorical Japanese fear of Gurkha troops whom they considered ruthless and formidable in battle.
Major Percival Leathart, ‘D’ Company commander, would never forget their first introduction to Blackpool and its commander. “The first time I saw [John Masters] he was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts made from an old parachute… The block was a mess of Japanese corpses outside, and inside the stench of death and latrines.”
The Gurkhas took over the positions held by the King’s own. Leathart jumped into a slit trench to check its field of fire. He noticed a soldier inside staring out at the perimeter. He seemed oblivious of Leathart who tapped him on the shoulder. The man toppled over, dead as stone. Rigor mortis had already set it and to Leathart’s consternation, no knew seemed to know when he had died.[cxxiii]
Calvert and the rest of the 77th Brigade also sought to join the defenders, but by the time Calvert could approach Blackpool, the Namyin Chaung was in full spate and impossible to cross.[cxxiv]
When conditions became clear a massive flight of Dakotas escorted by fighters arrived to evacuate all the wounded. Commanders were relieved to see the wounded and the infirm taken away even as fresh casualties took their place in the medical station, laid low by all manner of battlefield wounds, malaria, sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis. Other men were beginning to suffer from psychological conditions. “You could see people going downhill,” said Major “Doc” Whyte. “Some even died in their sleep.”[cxxv]
Medical care in the field, in short, was the stuff of nightmares for Chindit medical officer. Medicine was always in short supply.[cxxvi] Mules attached to the medical teams carried a pannier on one side filled with medical supplies, which as experience showed, always seemed to run out. Mepacrin (or atabrine), the anti-malarial medicine, was so much in demand that the medical teams did not have enough to dole out. Incredibly, there were no antibiotics — none having been issued, and medical staff had to make do with suplhamine. The medical teams did not have large tents for operations and they did not have mosquito nets.
Those unlucky enough to be immobilized by wounds had to be dragged behind mules on bamboo stretchers, the front handles attached to the mule’s saddle with the back handles dragging on the ground — a scene conjuring up imagery from the old Wild West. Four men with ropes walked alongside to help the stretcher up over the bumps on the ground and steer the mule.
Daily inspections for malaria became commonplace as everyone seemed to get it at one time or the other. Every morning, when the situation allowed, the men were lined up inspection. The NCOs ensured that everybody took mepacrin. The medicine turned the eyes yellow, “but after a bit you didn’t care” said Whyte. The Gurkhas, however, did mind after a rumor spread that the medicine made them impotent. Many threw away their valuable doses. It took some time for Whyte and the other medical personnel to quash that tale.
For Masters, even more exhilarating news was around the corner. Reports arrived that Merrill’s Marauders had captured Myitkyina which meant that the campaign was largely over. In reality, the Marauders had only captured the city airfield even as their forays into the city met fierce resistance.
After their victory at Nhpum Ga, the three Marauder battalions had remained in the area, buying their dead in a makeshift cemetery replete with bamboo crosses, undergoing treatment for their wounds and having hundreds of other minor conditions, such as leech bites, dermatitis, intestinal problems, and fevers addressed.
The regiment had been shot to pieces and having been promised only a three month campaign, it believed it was entitled to some well-deserved rest. Many Marauders began to believe that the Chinese would take over the advance. But when rumors had begun to circulate that the regiment was to attack Myitkyina, the Marauders, in the words of James Hopkins, the 3rd Battalion surgeon,[cxxvii] began to regard “Stilwell with considerable hostility.”[cxxviii]
Some of the officers began to consider Stilwell a rank hypocrite and a liar. After, wasn’t it “Vinegar Joe” who had castigated Wingate for losing one-third of his force during their first foray in Burma in 1943? Now, the Marauders had lost almost as many, yet Stilwell was determined to keep them in the field. Angry mutterings began that it was Stilwell, not Wingate, who was “prepared to sacrifice his own troops.”[cxxix] The Marauders were not to know it, but it was also their own temporary chief, Lt-Colonel Hunter, leading them in Merrill’s absence, who was pushing plans for an attack instead of demanding succor.
Hunter first learned for Stilwell’s plan for Myitkyina during a rare visit to Hsamshingyang by Colonel Henry Kinnison II (Stilwell’s G-3). Hunter, who coveted full command of the Marauders, immediately drew up a feasibility study for the operation using data obtained from American OSS agents, Kachins and missionary priests. Perhaps Hunter hoped that plans would impress Stilwell enough to promote him to brigadier-general. Whatever the reason Hunter sent the report to Stilwell’s headquarters via his own adjutant, Major Louis Williams.
There, Williams had found Merrill, seemingly recovered. Merrill took charge of the plans, apparently giving everyone the unintended impression that they were his. Stilwell had approved. A “Myitkyina Task Force” was created, comprising elements of the Marauders, the Chinese 150th Infantry (50th Division) and the Chinese 88th Infantry (30th Division). The Marauders were deloused, issued fresh uniforms and shunted back into the advance.
Stilwell, who had never liked Hunter, appointed one if his Chinese-speaking officers, Colonel John McCammon, as executive officer of the Task Force. With this selection, Hunter fell to third place in the Force hierarchy. “The men of Galahad resented this more than I did,” he said later. “They embarrassed me at times by openly offering their sympathy.” Merrill, however, asked Hunter to lead the attack spearhead. Hunter chose the battle-hardened 1st Battalion as his unit of choice.[cxxx]
Hunter commanded “H” Force: the 1st Battalion and the Chinese 150th Infantry Regiment[cxxxi]. Colonel Kinnison led “K” Force: the 3rd Marauder Battalion and the Chinese 88th Regiment. “M” Force was Colonel McGee’s 2nd Battalion, augment with Kachin rebels trained by OSS[cxxxii] officers of Detachment 101.
The combat teams headed into back into the jungle in the last week of April to cover the arduous 100 km (62 miles) distance through the Kumon Mountains towards their objective. The troops moved rapidly through the Pidaung forest without a word. “The silence of a column of four thousand men marching in a cave of darkness through unknown and unfamiliar surroundings is almost deafening in its intensity,” Hunter later said. “The absence of the usual chatter, horseplay, and wisecracks emphasizes the tenseness gripping the men.”[cxxxiii]
By May 16th, the leading US elements were reconnoitering the airfield perimeter. At about 2.30 am, Sergeant Clarence E. Branscomb, a combat veteran of the Solomon Islands, began to walk down the middle of runway, radio in hand. He called his battalion commander, Lt-Colonel Caifson Johnson, telling him there were no Japanese to be seen on the airfield.
As Johnson radioed India to send gliders with heavy equipment, the Kachins and OSS teams were already interviewing the locals, rousing them from their sleep in the dead of night. The question was always: what can you tell us about the Japanese here?
The stream of information proved invaluable: The Japanese had no barbed wire around the field, the revetments were not fortified; fifty-five-gallon drums of oil were placed on the runway to prevent surprise landings; 2,000 Japanese had been in Myitkyina before but now they were gone, although there were some Japanese at Pamati, a hamlet to the southeast, with 25 geishas in residence.
The gliders were delayed until the next morning, and in the interim, Hunter deployed his troops. He positioned the Chinese, not known for their swimming skills, with their backs to the Irrawaddy River so that they would be less inclined to retreat. They were to attack along a broad front and overrun the airfield. Already, Lt-Colonel Osborne’s 1st Battalion captured Pamati and the ferry point at Zigyun. The order to go for the airfield was set at 10 am. For the next few hours, the troops snatched hurried, incomplete spells of sleep.
Yet, when the time came, all the objectives fell swiftly that next morning. The airfield was theirs and as the Kachins set upon removed the oil drums from the runway, Hunter heard a roar in the sky. Looking up, he saw US P-40 Kittyhawk fighters. The flight leader radioed Hunter asking for targets. There were none on the airfield. Hunter asked him to check the city and relay a message to headquarters: “Merchant of Venice” — a previously agreed-upon code phrase indicating success[cxxxiv]
Stilwell’s headquarters received this message at about 3.30 in the afternoon. Stilwell was jubilant. “Will this burn up the limeys!” he wrote in his diary.[cxxxv]
On the next day, May 18, two limeys flew to see him: Masters and Lentaigne, neither of whom was particularly burned up. Master, while happy to hear about American successes at Myitkyina, was nevertheless concerned about the growing Japanese strength around Blackpool —his angst compounded by disturbing reports of Japanese troops massing at Mogaung, set between Blackpool and Myitkyina.
Slim had formally transferred the Chindits to Stilwell on May 17th, and now “Vinegar Joe,” had summoned Masters to ask what good Blackpool was doing.
Lentaigne had warned Masters that Stilwell was a “volatile” man. When things were going fine, he was exactly how he appeared in the press — warm, affable and charming, but when things were going bad, he hated the world.[cxxxvi] Lentaigne had a particular word of caution about Stilwell’s staff. “He’s difficult enough,” he said, “but they’re impossible. There’s one chap who keeps whispering in Stilwell’s ear that the Chindits do nothing but march away from the enemy and drink tea, by Jove, eh what?”[cxxxvii]
Masters remarked that perhaps the man was right — at least about some Chindits — meaning Brodie’s 14th Brigade.
“14 Brigade’s doing its best, Jack,” Lentaigne snapped. Masters apologized.
When they saw Stilwell, they saw to their relief that he was in a good mood — the Marauders had seen to that by seizing the airfield.
He asked Masters if Blackpool was stopping all traffic in the railway valley. Masters replied that they were doing what they could, but that some Japanese were slipping past, and could only be halted if further reinforcements were brought in. Masters also asked him when Myitkyina was expected to fall.
“Soon,” Vinegar Joe replied and that was the end of the meeting. Outside, Lentaigne explained to Masters that Stilwell was flying massive Chinese reinforcements into the Myitkyina airfield to capture the town.
This was indeed true. A veritable air armada had started to land at the airfield in US Dakotas pulled from their “hump” flights, bringing in anti-aircraft companies, aviation engineers, an entire regiment of Chinese soldiers — everything except food and ammunition, which Hunter’s men were shot of. To be fair, Stilwell was not to blame — for once. Maj-General Stratemeyer, back in India, had authorized the transfers, later arguing that he had feared for the security of the airfield.[cxxxviii]
However, there seemed to be no concrete plan on how to capture Myitkyina town. Stilwell believed the city would capitulate in short order and wanted to give his Chinese troops the honor of seizing the final prize, so long awaited.[cxxxix] Two battalions of the Chinese 150th Infantry were ordered to go in and clear the city on the afternoon of May 17th. Under Japanese sniper fire, however, the Chinese had panicked. All attempts at unit cohesion dissolved as the Chinese scattered into small groups, firing every which way, including at other groups of Chinese.
According to Thomas Kepley, an American liaison officer with the 150th Infantry, the unit had been given orders to seize the train station but the Chinese proved useless at map reading and the regimental commander stupidly ordered his men advance along the open space of the rail line instead of on the road, where they had better cover.
The rampant acts of friendly fire ceased only after the sun set but resumed the next morning when the newly arrived Chinese 89th Infantry (having landed overnight), began to take up positions nearby. Both regiments had been oblivious of each other’s positions and opened fire believing the other was a Japanese force. The shooting only stopped after repeated interventions from headquarters.[cxl]
Another factor not much considered by Stilwell but was to be just as lethal as bullets was tsutsugamushi fever, a form of typhus brought to Burma by the Japanese. The disease began to run amok among the Americans and the Chinese. Hundreds of men began to drop out of the line, requiring immediate hospitalization.
Hunter and Merrill flew to Shaduzup on May 19th to confer with Stilwell about the battle. Hunter told the general that the Japanese in Myitkyina had about two-and-a-half battalions of troops and were expected to resist fiercely. Stilwell’s intelligence officer, his own son, Colonel Joseph Stilwell, Jr — a product of nepotism if there ever was one — disagreed.[cxli] He put forward a new estimate for the number of defenders: 300 Japanese. After the war, the official US Army history of the campaign would record this figure as a gross underestimation.
Hunter and Merrill were aghast. Later that same day, (May 19th), Merrill was to suffer his second heart attack, and this time, doctors recommended his immediate evacuation back the United States. Merrill was going home, and with that, out of the Burma story. This once again left Hunter in temporary charge of the Marauders, but he was soon to be supplanted by a staff officer from Stilwell’s staff, Colonel John McCammon, who was unofficially made a Brigadier-General.[cxlii]
On the 20th, food and ammunition finally arrived by air, and Hunter prepared another foray into the city. The result was again an unmitigated fiasco.♦
[i] Fergusson, The Wild Green Earth, 82-83.
[iii] This meeting, known as the Aberdeen Conference, took place on April 3. (Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 1460, 28%)
[iv] Fergusson, 84.
[v] Masters, 169-170.
[vi] Fergusson, 86.
[vii] CO: Commanding Officer
[viii] Fergusson, 83.
[ix] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 1460, 28%
[x] Thompson, 162.
[xi] See Fergusson, The Wild Green Earth.
[xii] Thompson, 181.
[xiii] Ibid., 179.
[xiv] Cave Diaries, 59. Also see Bidwell.
[xv] Allen, 330.
[xvi] Ibid., 333.
[xvii] Ibid., 336.
[xviii] Under an earlier operational plan, codenamed Operation “Tarzan,” the 26th Division was to be airlanded in Burma, once the other Chindit brigades had established themselves.
[xix] Some historians also contend that Slim released the brigade to Wingate without preconditions, but this is unlikely. Slim did not much see the value of Operation “Thursday,” and he had the bigger problem of defeating the Japanese in India.
[xx] Kirby, The War Against Japan, Vol III, 212-218.
[xxi] Slim, Defeat into Victory, 270.
[xxii] Fergusson, 114.
[xxiii] Fergusson, The Wild Green Earth, 103.
[xxiv] With the 139th Independent Infantry Battalion, the 141 Independent Infantry Battalion, and brigade artillery, engineers and signals. The Brigade would reach Indaw between 26-31 March.
[xxv] Allen 337.
[xxvi] Fergusson, 108.
[xxvii] Fergusson was not to know that the Japanese were already prepared for an attack, owing to the earlier misinformation campaign by the Chindits of 111th brigade heading for Pinlebu. The Japanese also accurately judged that any attacking troops would seek water and appropriately defended the Indaw Lake.
[xxviii] Fergusson, 108.
[xxix] About 2,000 Japanese troops held the airfield.
[xxx] Fergusson, 112.
[xxxi] According to Calvert, the dump held reserve ammunition for the Japanese 31st Division attacking Kohima. (Prisoners, loc. 1374, 26%)
[xxxii] Fergusson, 114.
[xxxiii] Ibid, 119.
[xxxiv] Astor, 228.
[xxxv] Allen, 348.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 348.
[xxxvii] Van Wagner, 64.
[xxxviii] Fergusson, 117.
[xxxix] Trevor Royle, Wingate: A Man of Genius, 310-12.
[xl] According to the rules of war and the fact that those deceased were on a US military plane, all the bodies, including that Wingate, were buried at Arlington Cemetery at Washington, DC, which would cause much controversy later.
[xli] Van Wagner, 66.
[xlii] Fergusson, 117.
[xliii] Fergusson, Trumpet in the Hall, 177.
[xliv] Richard Rhodes James, Chindits, 206.
[xlv] Zeigler, Mountbatten, 276.
[xlvi] Ronald Lewin, Slim: The Standardbearer, 146.
[xlvii] Slim, Defeat into Victory, 326.
[xlviii] Bidwell, 160.
[xlix] The youngest on record was William Holmes who became a major-general in 1937 at age 42.
[l] Allen, 350.
[liii] Allen, 351 & Bidwell
[liv] Bidwell, 160.
[lv] Astor, 250.
[lvi] In fact, the light, compact M1 carbine was supplied to the Chindits on a massive scale from March-April, becoming the standard infantry small arm alongside the venerable Lee Enfield .303 rifle.
[lviii] Van Wagner, 66.
[lix] Allen, 351.
[lx] Tulloch had argued that the troops were in the grip of combat and could not be withdrawn, and that the way the Zibyu Hills, near the Chindwin lay in such a way on the land that it gave the Japanese an easy route to ambush the approaching Chindits.
[lxi] The 23rd Brigade would remain in India to conduct operations around Kohima.
[lxii] Allen, 352.
[lxiv] Phillips, Another Man’s War.
[lxvi] The same thing happened at White City as well, apparently. Lt. Osborne told of an incident in late April 1944, following an airdrop of medical supplies, when a Chindit doctor, to his consternation, found that a critical box of plasma he had requested had not come. A few minutes later a Nigerian NCO walked into the officer’s mess, and asked if there is any more of that jam — from the last food drop.
[lxvii] Barnaby Phillips, Another Man’s War, Ch 2.
[lxviii] IWM interview, Catalogue# 10467
[lxix] Van Wagner, 69.
[lxx] Astor, 254.
[lxxi] John Hamilton, War Bush, 346.
[lxxii] Astor, ibid.
[lxxiii] Calvert, Prisoners of Hope, loc. 1073-1084, 21% Ch. 6.
[lxxiv] In all, the African Chindits of the RWAFF were awarded one Distinguished Conduct Medal, 10 Military Medals and six Certificates of Gallantry.
[lxxv] Calvert, Prisoners, Loc. 1660, 32%.
[lxxvi] Telegraph Obituary. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9531609/Jack-Osborne.html)
[lxxvii] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 3030, 58%
[lxxviii] Masters, 163.
[lxxix] Thompson, 187.
[lxxx] Calvert, Fighting Mad.
[lxxxi] Thompson, 188-89.
[lxxxii] See Dennis Showalter & William Astore’s The Early Modern World, 66-69.
[lxxxiii] Thompson, 189.
[lxxxiv] Carfrae, Chindit Column, 180.
[lxxxv] Astor, 256.
[lxxxvi] Thompson, 189-190.
[lxxxvii] Astor, 257.
[lxxxviii] Calvert, Fighting Mad, 186.
[lxxxix] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 2022, 39%
[xc] Astor, 257.
[xci] Allen, 356.
[xcii] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 2178, 42%.
[xciii] Redding, 274.
[xciv] Thompson, 191.
[xcv] Astor, 259.
[xcvi] At this time, the brigade had a strength of 2277 men and 313 animals. Calvert had lost 46 officers and 692 men killed and 279men evacuated sick (a figure not including the Nigerians and Scott’s King’s who were at Broadway). (Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 2170-2178, 42%).
[xcvii] Rhodes James, IWM Interview, Catalogue# 19593.
[xcviii] Smythie survived the war and lived on in Burma as a civil servant in the post-war era.
[xcix] Fergusson, 95. The Japanese never recaptured Aberdeen, or the surrounding area and the villagers all survived.
[c] Fergusson, 138.
[ci] Allen, 357.
[cii] Bidwell, 208 & Allen, 357-358.
[ciii] Astor, 240.
[civ] Ibid., 241.
[cv] Ibid., 243.
[cvi] Lyons had been a member of the 33rd Infantry in Trinidad, as was Colonel Gee and most of the men in the 2nd Battalion. (Astor, 163).
[cvii] Astor, 243.
[cviii] Ibid., 244-246.
[cix] Allen, 358.
[cx] Masters was actually only a lieutenant, but had been given the war substantive rank of temporary major.
[cxi] Allen, 359.
[cxii] Ibid., 358.
[cxiii] Thompson, 181.
[cxiv] Masters, 236-237.
[cxv] Ibid., 244.
[cxvi] Ibid., 245.
[cxvii] Ibid., 239.
[cxviii] Ibid., 243.
[cxix] Ibid., 245-246.
[cxx] Ibid., 246.
[cxxi] Ibid., 247.
[cxxii] Alec Harper, IWM interview, Catalogue# 16442.
[cxxiii] Thompson, 196.
[cxxiv] Allen, 360.
[cxxv] Thompson, 181.
[cxxvi] Dental care was not much of a problem, Whyte explained, more so was optometry. “Men who wore glasses took in a spare pair, but if they broke the second pair they had to have another pair flown in.”
[cxxvii] Hopkins, had perhaps appropriately graduated from Johns Hopkins University Medical School in the spring of 1941 and was serving his first year as a surgical resident when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He subsequently served in New Zealand with the 37th Infantry Division, eventually transferring to the 148th Infantry Regiment which fought in the South pacific.
[cxxviii] Astor, 260.
[cxxx] Astor, 262.
[cxxxi] One-third of this Chinese regiment comprised veterans, with the rest were raw recruits.
[cxxxii] OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the precursor to the CIA.
[cxxxiii] Astor, 263.
[cxxxiv] Ibid., 265.
[cxxxv] Ibid., 265.
[cxxxvi] Masters, 249.
[cxxxviii] Astor, 271.
[cxxxix] See Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China.
[cxl] Astor, 272.
[cxli] Stilwell also appointed two of his sons-in-law as liaison officers with the Chinese. (Allen, 367, see footnote)
[cxlii] Astor, 274.