Yangon (Rangoon) railway station 2017
Ten years ago my father lay on his death bed, we talked of may things during those hot summer weeks but mainly of family – the eccentric aunts, the talented craftsmen, the perfectionists. I asked him to write down the details to share with future generations. Sometime later he said that he had completed the task and preceded to hand me his war memoirs called ‘From Pinner to Poona’.
My father was 14 when WWII broke out but when he was 18 in 1943 he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment and served in Burma from 1944 to 1947. Know subsequently as the ‘forgotten war’ it proved a turning point of WW II.
In 1944 the Japanese Imperil Army occupied Burma and in March of that year they would launch their last great offensive in Southeast Asia, from their bases northwest of Mandalay to Assam via the little hill towns of Imphal and Kohima.
For the Japanese and the British, these battles in early 1944 in the little principality of Manipur, three thousand feet up, were the turning point in the Burma campaign. Both sides knew it and gave it everything they had.
The British brought up massive reinforcements and now assembled half a million soldiers with tens of thousands of additional labourers, fifty thousand vehicles, and every spare elephant in India, all along the wet and thickly jungled front. Against this the Japanese threw two hundred thousand men. When the fighting began Lieutenant General Sir William Slim and his Fourteenth Army ensured that Imphal held out for three months against a ferocious Japanese onslaught, while Chindit forces hacked away at supply lines and Allied planes provided support from the air. The Japanese were stopped, both at Imphal and at Kohima, when the attack was over more than 80,000 Japanese and 17,000 Allied troops lay dead. What was left of Japanese forces fell back to the Chindwin River hundreds of miles to the east and then beyond, with the Chindits fast on their heels.
The tide had turned, and the Allies under Slim prepared for what had long been thought impossible, an overland re-conquest of Burma.
The British Fourteenth Army crossed first the Chindwin in November 1944 and then the Irrawaddy in January 1945, in the longest opposed river crossing anywhere in the world, meeting intense Japanese resistance every step of the way. The front line in Burma was longer than either the eastern or western fronts in Europe. In March, Meiktila, the heart of the Japanese operation, was captured after five days of fierce and close combat in the furnace like spring heat. The rains were now only weeks away and the British were now racing to Rangoon.
My fathers account is full of vivid detail of day to day life – both the fighting, survival and peacetime ….
- Swopping clothes for food
- Not having water to drink
- Being quarantined for diphtheria
- Accidently being hit by a friends hand grenade
- Hand to hand fighting
- His promotion and move to the Intelligence Corp
- R & R in India after the end of the war
- Becoming friends with a Burmese judge and his daughters
As we got nearer to our destination, I suppose it was to be expected that the likelihood of our making the journey back was spoken of occasionally. Tom and I were both single and unattached. Vic and Fred were both married but only Fred had children. I remember Fred saying that he was definitely making the return journey – because he had to”
But mainly it is about the people he encountered and in particular his friends.
- Four friends on board ship not knowing their destination – but slowly working it out
- Those who he admired and
- Those who supported him
The platoon having lost its officers and sergeant was being run by Corporal Harry Varney who treated us new boys very kindly and did his best to help us settle in.
We were told that a divisional shoot would take place in preparation for an attack on Meiktila. It started at dusk, lasting about half an hour and came directly over our position with thousands of shells from our artillery. I was very glad to be on the right side of it. Shortly afterward a strong group of motorised infantry with tanks pushed through the Japanese roadblock and went on to attack Meilktila. The Japanese realising they could do little to stop them, simply let them through and closed back on the road afterwards. The following day we were ordered to follow on towards Meiktila but of course by that time the roadblock had been restored and we started taking casualties, including our ship board friend Fred Doughty who was shot and killed. Corporal Harry Varney, our CO medical Officer and some others were blown up and killed when the jeep they were travelling in hit a mine. Harry who had lost both his legs in the blast died in the Civil Aid Post.
Of those close to him 2 died – Harry Varney and Fred Doughty, and one was injured -Vic Middlemass at the battle for Meiktila.
My father and I were due to come to Myanmar in November 2007 but sadly he died in the August of that year. I couldn’t go without him as it was too poignant, so I waited 6 years.
“the wells were polluted with dead bodies – for the first time we knew what it was to be really thirsty”
“we were constantly thirsty – our water came from the local lake and although polluted, was drinkable with maximum chlorination and provided you held your nose”
When I first visited Myanmar in 2013 I set out to visit as many of the places mentioned in the memoirs and to visit the Taukkyan war memorial in Yangon to commemorate Harry and Fred on my father’s behalf.
To my surprise I did not find a memorial entry for Harry but a proper grave, his body having been relocated in the 1950s after the cemetery was built by the Commomwealth War Graves Commission.
It was the most amazing connection to be walking the streets of Yangon, standing on railway platforms and seeing the buildings that would have been so familiar to my father – it felt as if this is where he was right at that very moment. Eventually I visited Maymyo (Pyn U Lwn) the beautiful hill station still with its strong military presence due to its proximity to China – and the barracks still standing that my father thought of as such luxury having been either in the jungle or under canvas for years.
Mandalay, travelling the ‘road to Mandalay’ that he drove along many times, and on the flight to Mandalay flying over the distinctive road system that marks Meiktila knowing that was where Fred died and remained in an unmarked grave.
So when I found myself living in Myanmar in 2017 I felt it was an opportunity to finish the quest and see if I could find the area where Fred was shot and died. With my fathers memoirs and some military history research I was able to pin point a location some 5 miles northwest of Meiktila. A mile south of the former aerodrome at Thabutkon where a river crosses the road by a ford.
The community based organisation ‘Peace and Justice’ (how aptly named) is located in Meiktila and was to receive a capacity building visit, this was my opportunity. Time was short but last week I was able to drive to the identified spot – exactly as it had been described, not much had changed in this part of Myanmar – and build a mini cairn and lay my homemade poppy. I felt that I had found Fred and that the chapter was now closed.
We were told that we were to take a leading role in the attack on Rangoon, it was about this time we heard that the Germans had surrendered and the European war was over – this led some of us to think it would be hard luck to die now”
We flew back from Mandalay on that trip, it took just over the hour, when my father and his friends completed the same journey it took them 17 months of intense fighting.
We never did get the family history but somehow it doesn’t seem important.