How Admin Troops Backed up the Fighting Men
“I have soldiered for more than 42 years,” wrote Field-Marshal Lord Wavell. “and the more I have seen of war the more I realise how it all depends on administration and transportation (what our American allies call logistics).”
The operational area of the Fourteenth Army was about 100,000 square miles, or rather larger than Great Britain. The terrain and its roads and railway have been described. Half a million men lived and fought in this jungle; how they even lived there is one of the miracles of this war. Every day Fourteenth’s famous Major-General of Administration “Alf” Snelling, had to feed 500,000 soldiers plus 300,000 coolies. He planned to have his own farms, 18.000 acres of them, sited well forward. One in Manipur was so well forward that the Japs overran it. On these farms Snelling grew vegetables, ducks, pigs, and goats. He set up a factory aiming to salt 20,000 lbs of fish per day, and mobile breweries to slake the strengthened thirst. It was still necessary to bring in by rail, road, air or water 1,800 tons of food each day. The different tastes, habits and religious customs of British, Indians, Gurkhas, Africans made the ration problem more complex.
Snelling and his 14th Army drivers and REME and IEME engineers kept 50,000 vehicles moving along the incredible jungle and mountain roads through dust storm and monsoon mud. A daily mileage of 77 was maintained by all trucks travelling from railhead to the forward areas during the worst weather month of the year. They averaged 13,942 miles per accident, tho’ you would never believe it as you raced around those ledge-roads above thousand-foot precipices.
Air was a great ally of administration as it had been of operation. During the great battles of Imphal-Kohima 30,000 non-combat troops were flown out of Imphal and 30,000 casualties. Two-and-a half divisions with all their equipment were flown in, and almost as many more replacements as well as 50,000 tons of supply. During the siege of Imphal, of course, every lb of man or material that went in to 4 Corps was airborne. Tho’ triumph crowned this remarkable development of air supply it must not be supposed that it solved the entire, logistical problem. It created its own train of problems, for aircraft must be fuelled, maintained and serviced.
We had mules from India, Africa, and USA. We had little South African donkeys (they had huge heads, bigger than horses, and all their bridles had to be enlarged). We had elephants, tho’ unlike the Japs we rarely used them for transport, chiefly employing them on bridging. An elephant can lay a plank with the precision of a carpenter. He can also lay off work with the same precision. There were elephants who would “down trunks” dead at 5 p.m., winter or summer, so that the fading light had nothing to do with their decision.
The hospital problem was staggering. Wounded men were borne, sometimes ten miles, by stretcher through jungle, over mountains, across torrents. They were carried out to rearward hospitals by mule, jeep, sampan barge, hospital ship, truck, train, anti aircraft. Sunderland flying boats took Chindit casualties from Indawgi Lake, in the heart of Jap-held Burma, to the Brahmaputra River. No single accident marred those wounderful air services. In the end our forward hospitals were all re-grouped near airfields.
The wounded had to be made fit enough to stand these arduous journeys. Field ambulances treated desperate cases close behind the forward line, and mobile surgical units operated under fire. At Kohima, a hospital unit crawled through the Jap front to succour the beleaguered wounded of the little British-Indian garrison. The miracles of blood transfusion, penicillin treatment, neuro-surgical operations belong to a fuller story. Here we record that all along this terrible, merciless front the doctors, dentists, nurses, stags and “ladies in blue” (Indian Hospital Welfare Workers) earned the admiration of all ranks and the undying gratitude of the wounded whom they served.
But if we had 27,000 wounded at the time of the great battles, we had ten times that number of malaria and dysentery cases during the campaign. The curse was cut in half by building up “malaria-discipline,” by draining the malarial swamps, and by prompt medical treatment.
So a great army overcame the vast spaces, the dark dense treacherous jungle that filled that space: the evil beasts, and insects, and snakes that dwelt therein, and carried death to men; the leeches, lice, and ticks, the sun’s high blaze, and the night’s dew, and its lonely terror: rain, mist, and mud. They conquered all, and the foulest of all—the Japanese enemy.
Yes it was an Army, this Fourteenth, none more devoted or indomitable in all the chronicle of wars.