The Battle of Sittang 16th-23rd February 1942 - Bill Norman's account
By Bill Norman
Bill Norman was born at Sheffield in 1920, his father being Jack Norman, who later became the Drum Major of the 2nd Battalion. He grew up with the Battalion in Egypt, Singapore and India. Following his father’s invaliding out of the army in 1933 he returned to England. A year later he enlisted into the Regiment as a band boy and and joined the 1st Battalion in which his uncle, Tom Norman, was Orderly Room Sergeant. He served with the 2nd Battalion in the Burma campaign of 1942.
On return to the U.K. he volunteered for the Commandos and saw service with them in Italy and the Balkans. After the war, while maintaining his interest in music, he also developed an interest in rifle shooting and in 1947 attended Bisley for the first time. In later years he was nine times in the Army Hundred, shot for the Army Eight in 1956, was third in the Army Championships (1956) and on several occasions represented the army in both full and small bore matches. At the time of this retirement in 1975 he held the rank of W02 (CSM). Since then has continued with both his musical and rifle shooting interests. In addition he is performing an invaluable service to the Regiment by indexing the very many photographs and papers in the Regimental archives.
At Christmas 1941 I was attending the annual corporals mess dance at Peshawar on the North West Frontier of India. Not being the dancing type, I stood at the bar chatting to RSM (Dye) Ward. He was a kindly man whom I respected, not too regimental, and quite a good family friend. A few bottles of Murree beer made me more talkative than usual, and I bemoaned the fact that we were meson about on those rather bare mountains when we could be learning about jungle warfare, so that we could go off to Malaya and fight the Japanese who had invaded that country. Nice to be able to tell the RSM on equal terms (almost) what I thought of things. Like the rest of the 2nd Battalion I was yearning to get into this great war which had been going on now for two years without my having heard a shot fired. We had just moved to Peshawar from Delhi where we had been doing ceremonial duties. Delhi was okay by us but the ceremonial duties were not, and we loathed them. We wanted to get into this big war and volunteered for anything that might get us there. Peshawar suited us much better than Delhi, we trained hard at frontier “warfare”, thought being in the band I did not get as much of the training as I would have liked. At least we were shot at now and again; we even had three casualties with gun shot wounds on one occasion.
This type of warfare did not require the very latest in arms and equipment and apart from the Lewis gun being replaced with one Vickers Berthier LMG per platoon we were more of less fitted out as we had been at the end of World War One. However, we were very fit and proud of our ability to fight the wily pathan. It was at this time that I was chosen to atten a 3” Mortar cadre run by the newly arrived Lieut O.E.M. Travis who was appointed as our very first mortar commander.
The band made up the nucleus of the mortar platoon and several of us NCO’s were being trained as detachment commanders with Band Sergeant (Ginger) Yarnold as the platoon sergeant. He was a first class soldier and a martinet.
I took to the mortars well and like Mr. Travis, so worked extra hard to make sure of being a worthy and efficient member of the organization.
Just before leaving Dehli we had received two real mortars to replace the drill purpose ones which were various pieces of metal pipe for the barrel and bipod, a flat piece of iron with a hole in the middle as a base plate and elastic as the recoil spring. the muzzle cover was a Cherry Blossom Boot Polish tin lid. It was surprising, though, how much we had learned on this contraption, primitive as it was. Later we received two more mortars but as times were hard there was no ammunition to be had, not even to see what it looked like. Later a traveling team from somewhere showed us the bombs, fired half a dozen and cleared off.
January 1942 saw us out training at a place called Shamshatu with our pieces being carried on long suffering mules. There was no proper harness, so we adapted the Vickers MMG equipment. I can’t really say that half the time I knew what I was doing, but I just carried on and enjoyed every minute of this playing at soldiers. At least there was a potential enemy out there most of the time. You never saw them but you knew that they were about, and watching us with the greatest of interest. We had to be very careful at times.
Right out of the blue we were suddenly ordered to strike camp and get marching back to Roberts Barracks at Peshawar. Wild rumours circulated and we set off on our march with high hopes. After a few miles had been covered a motley lot of transport arrived in dribs and drabs to pick us up and hasten our return.
At one point of the march the RSM came alongside and said “Well what do you think of your chances in jungle warfare now?” There must have been something in the air or he would not have asked me for my thoughts. A renewed wave of excitement went through me. Over the next few weeks we received all the modern equipment. Our “last war” webbing was replaced and battle dress appeared. We just had to have our photographs taken wearing it, to the joy of the local photographer. 2” mortars, bren guns, anti-tank rifles and our first ever wireless sets (Australia) were released from the very scarce stocks allotted to India. Two more mortars brought us up to strength and our G1098 Scale of ammunition arrived namely 10lb high explosive and 9.5lb white phosphorous bombs. As each case of bombs weighed 72lb it was heavy work moving it about. Our spirits were very high on 3 February 1942 as we marched to Peshawar Railway Station. I was saddened to see Captain Conningham’s newly married wife full of tears as we passed. There were to be quite a few from the married quarters who were seeing their husbands for the last time.
Six days across the Deccan on a troop train is a lot of fun to the likes of me, but even so I was glad to arrive at Madras on 9 February and board the SS Varsova, a wartime troopship. Escorted by the crusier HMS Emerald and two smaller warships we sailed in an easterly direction.
We did some weapon training on board ship which included the 2” mortar though we did not quite get the hand of using the sight. The instructor did not seem very confident about it either and after a few explanations, brushed it aside. It was out of the question to fire it but we fire the .55 Boyes anti-tank rifle and looking back I am glad that I was not firing it in anger as it scared me more than the enemy tank would have done at the time. There was such a mighty flash, bang, back blast, and recoil that I shut my eyes when I let the second shot go. We were informed that our destination was to be Rangoon and in my ignorance of that country I wondered why we had to go to sea and not by rail, thinking Burma to be some part of India.
We arrived at Rangoon on 14 February, to be greeted, the next day, with the unbelievable news that Singapore had fallen and that the army in Burma had taken up new positions in some place with a strange sounding name. Again my ignorance of the country to which I had come to fight came out when I discovered that the Burmese were an Asiatic race of people, they all looked like Gurkhas. We were driven in big American made trucks to the barracks at Mingladon, by way of the Shwe Dagon Golden Temple. Here we ate wonderful Australian tinned sausages and Heinz beans, a luxury indeed.
As we were near to the airport which was subject to regular air attack. We had to sleep in the open near some trenches, but all that happened was that I was soaking wet due to the heavy condensation. We had a demonstration on he Stickey anti-tank grenade, a general visited us, and after a few days we loaded up our heavy G1098 ammunition yet again and were on the move.
This time we were bound for a place called Thannet Pin – some to Yit Khan, south of Pegu. It was feared that the enemy might make a landing across the Gulf of Martaban. On arriving we cleaned our mortars and got them ready for action, but as we never had fired a round it was decided that we might loose of a few rounds. A suitable piece of ground was found and we prepared for action. As soon as we fired three rounds from one mortar we were ordered to cease fire for we were on the move again.
Each mortar, along with 150 rounds, was carried on a 15cwt truck, so to avoid overloading the crews had to march. Off we hiked with the rest of the Battalion. It was very hot and the road very dusty. The dust covered us from head to foot, and gave us a thirst that never left us for the rest of our time in that country. We sweated and cursed every truck that passed and showered us with yet another layer of that yellow stinking dust. We halted and along came the MT Sergeant in a jeep who ordered everyone who had an idea of driving, to join him. There was no lack of volunteers. They were to go to Rangoon to unload the transport which had arrived from Calcutta, then drive it away. I was surprised that we had so many undiscovered drivers, of course I later found out that we did not. They had only gone to get away from the marching, heat and dust. Mortar platoon was not permitted to volunteer.
On arrival at the important town of Pegu we reloaded the G1089 ammunition onto a train, boarded it ourselves, and headed eastward. “Now we are bound to get rid of some of the ammunition” thought I. Travelling overnight we detrained in the early morning at a place called Kyaikto where there was an ancient armoured car of the 1920’s vintage on the platform. It had been hit many times with bullets and was full of dents, I did not see any holes though. It occurred to me that we had rather old equipment and that they could do some pretty good shooting. Another march, more dust, more heat, more thirst, and on arrival at some unknown village the inevitable G1098 ammunition to lump. This time it had to be carried over a very shaky bamboo bridge with a very muddy river beneath. It was no easy task to carry the awkward 72lb boxes with the bridge moving and nothing to hold on to. I felt quite nervous but did not dare show it. However, the population of the village turned out and insisted on taking over the job from us and I for one was most happy about that. We had a collection for them and only after some persuasion did they accept it. They gave us fruit and it was a pleasure to sit on their bamboo hut verandas and drink Burmese tea with them Later in the campaign they would flee for their lives as we approached even though we at no time harmed, or even threatened them. We were losing this war and perhaps they did not want the Japanese to be able to accuse them of helping us. Who could blame them?
In the early hours of the morning there was a great deal of small arms fire from our right and we all thought the battle had started, so we stood to while a patrol was sent to investigate the commotion. It discovered that a Japanese patrol had bumped into the Burma Rifles who let of a hail of panic fire. This was quite a common thing with fresh units at the start.
As dawn came we saw our first Japanese soldiers, a section passing a long way to our left and too far away to open fire upon them. They were moving into position behind us and later it was going to be us who had to attack them. Their standard practice.
Orders came for us to withdraw and as we had not fired a shot we were rather peeved about it. Forming into rifle sections we set off and had not gone very far when we met up with some men from the KOYLI, they were so scruffy that I could not believe it: an absolute shambles. Little did I realise that we would be in a similar condition in a short space of time. Prior to our departure we had to get our beloved G1098 ammunition back across the rickety bamboo bridge along with the mortars in their boxes and our personal kit, then load them into the big American trucks, and set off along the dirt road.
Enemy air attack
We marched across country in an open formation through some clumps of elephant grass about ten feet high, some higher. Twenty-seven single engined aircraft appeared, but we just gazed in admiration. We had been told that air superiority was ours, and an argument ensued as to whether they were the Hurricanes or Tomahawks. They formed into a circle and dived, and it gave us good heart to think what a pasting the Japs were to receive, so I was surprised when Sergeant Hamilton blew short blasts on his whistle to warn us of an enemy air attack. I jeered at him for it when a big noise and a cloud of dust came towards me at great speed. I did not have time to do anything as the bullets thudded into the ground both to my left and right and as the plane passed directly over I noticed the big red rising sun painted on its wings. Setting my sights at 250x I adopted the kneeling position and prepared to shoot the next one down, feeling with the greatest of confidence that I could not miss. However I was ordered not to fire so as to delude them into thinking we had gone; “Some blooming hopes” I thought. We only fooled ourselves and the planes with the big red blobs on their wings came on. None were shot down and I did not see anyone on our side hit, but some were and we had out first fatal casualties.
The attack only lasted a few minutes but it was long enough for us. It was my first time under any real heavy fire and I was quite pleased with myself because I did all I was supposed to do, and was surprised at how cool I had kept.
We took cover in a rubber plantation in nice neat rows. As there were a lot of men in this bit of plantation there was often more than one crutched behind each tree. As I did not have one I sat in the open. Presently some more planes attached and we were in for it again. I just watched the scene. A plane would come in with all its guns firing and the bodies would align themselves behind the truck for cover. Then another plane would come from a different angle and the whole party would swing round together in a beautiful movement that would have gladdened the heart of any drill sergeant. Near me was an Indian truck driver, one of the very thin men one sees in the east. His legs resembled a pair of worn army leather boot laces, and wearing web anklets he looked as if he was standing in a pair of buckets. He stood in a perfect standing position and when a plane attacked he would wait until he saw it, measure a twenty-one degree with a handspan, bring up his rifle into the shoulder, and fire at the plane which by his time was miles away. I shouted at him in my very best barrack room Hindustani to stop firing and take cover. With the greatest of smiles, which showed his beautiful white teeth, he held out his handspan and in the best of his barrack room English said “Twenty-one degrees Sahib”. Telling him how well he was doing I let him get on with his fine bit of soldiering.
Later, an aircraft appeared that did not have big red blobs on their wings but the roundels of the RAF and we said some rather nasty things about our airforce, still I did not see anyone hit for all the thousands of rounds that came our way. I am sure there must have been some thought. After a cold night in that plantation and with terrible thirst we left shortly after dawn, but we had not gone far when we found our transport which had been shot up and abandoned on the track, some of it was burning and ammunition exploded in all directions. I went to see if there was anything that could be done to salvage our gear, but it was burning, and fearing that the bombs might go off any minute, I am away. The one thing I did see was my very own mosquito net with my last four numbers stamped on it, I felt rather saddened.
The air attack blew and we dived into the scrub and somewhat faster than we had done on the previous day. From now on anything that flew was our enemy’s. In my bush was the bloated, stinking body of the first dead man I had ever seen. It gave me quite a shock. Before the day was out I was to see many more without turning a hair. A Japanese reconnaissance plane flew by very low and we continued our retreat in a westward direction. How long that march lasted I do not know, I only thought of water and could hardly speak when RSM Ward came alongside and croaked: “How about jungle warfare now?” I was never to see him again as he was taken prisoner and died shortly after release.
March or die
Men began to pass out, and we came upon one who had fairly recently come from the UK and was older than most of us. I tried to get him on his feet but he was completely done in.
Our sergeant arrived and, giving him a kick to no effect, said: “Get on your feet and march or we will leave you to die”. We thought Ginger was being rather harsh but the truth was just that; march or die.
That man’s name is now on the roll of honour, and we had learned a lesson. Later we halted and deployed. The ground to our front sloped downwards to some jungle with the wide track running through the center. Quite some battle was going on. Lieutenant Colonel Owen stood there in full view of everyone, his hair was neatly plastered down as always, and his monocle held firmly in place. He looked as dapper as ever and I was full of admiration for him as I saw him for the last time. Lined up left and right of the path, with bayonets fixed, rifles at the high port, he have us the order to advance and forgetting our thirst, we went.
Some small arms fire and one or two explosions met us, but on we went into the thick jungle without making any contact with the Japs.
Afterwards I realized that I had lost contact with the rest of the platoon and decided to keep going forward along the edge of the path. I had got ahead of the rest, so took up a position to cover the path, fired a couple of sighting shots and waited for the platoon to catch up.
After a while I was joined by “Sticky’ Glew of the band and some of the platoon. Trying to get ourselves organized we came under machine gun fire and Corporal Staccy was hit in the head and killed. Some Japs ran across the road we all opened up on them, killing three to our satisfaction. In the thick jungle we seemed to have lost control so we moved forward in small groups trying to gather in as many men as we could reorganize, but as we went it became impossible and we only got dispersed again.
I came across some Gurkas who indicated that their officer was wounded and was lying quietly on the ground with some of his men guarding him. His hat was by his side and I could see the name of Pattinson or something similar, written inside. “Now what have you been doing, Mr Pattinson?” I said to his surprise. He told me that he had received a sword wound in his left lower side and numerous grenade fragmentation wounds. After doing what I could for him his men told me that they would carry him onward.
As I went on I picked up a Bren gun from a dead man, but there were no magazines with it and being in a nasty spot, I did not hang around to look for any. Meeting up with a pal of mine called Armitage from “A” Coy we kept together until we met Major Robinson with a group of men were exchanging shots with a group of Japanese I was given a couple of magazines for the Bren gun but did not know how to open the magazine opening cover as it was of a different design to the Vickers Berthier on which I had been trained, so I used my rifle.
The firing died down and being informed that a chap named Abrahamson was hit I went to see what I could do for him but he was quite dead, and being under fire, I decided to leave him and get out it as quickly as possible. Later at an inquiry about missing persons, I was to get on hell of a chewing off because O said that he was dead and I had not taken his identity discs.
The Japs cleared off, so we went, stopping occasionally to chop down plantain leaves of which we chewed the center stem to extract the juice to slake the terrible thirst we all suffered. The Gurkhas had shown me this trick and I blessed them for it.
We headed for the Sittang River. As we approached Mokpalin we saw a very muddy pond and there was a frantic rush towards it. Filling our helmets/hats with the filthy liquid we drank it, poured it over our heads and wallowed in it. I was told later that there was a dead mule in it, I had non seen it but it would not have made any difference if I had. Somebody on the road was reorganizing and soon we were back into our platoons where we felt more secure.
Ginger Yarnold soon got a grip on us and it was good to see him despite him being a martinet. He was very pleased that I had obtained the Bren gun for the platoon and ordered me to hand my rifle to Jacky Waterhouse, our rangefinder, who was only armed with a pistol. Jacky was more than please to receive my SMLE rifle.
I was sad to lose it but it was all in a good cause and he was a good lad. Under Corporal Jow North a group was formed to piquet one of the hills while the rest came through Mokpalin towards Sittang. Through my monocular I saw a load of Japs heading towards Sittang but they were a long way away. Jow told me to open fire on them but I refused because of my only having two magazines and they were a long way away for my fire to have much effect. Also there must have been some of the enemy in the vicinity because their empty cartridge cases were lying about. He was not at all pleased but the rest of the section joined in on my side and he shut up. We sent a report down to our HQ. Poor Jow, he was quite a tough character. He was to die the next day and seemed to have a premonition about it. After about an hour or so no more troops passed through and after too long a silence we began to get worried in case we had been forgotten, but to our relief we received a message to come down from the piquet. We low no time in doing just that. We linked up with the rest of the Battalion about half a mile South of the bridge, which crossed the River Sittang.
Hastily strung out
Our platoon position was in some hard baked paddy fields with a railway crossing our front about four hundred yards away. Six hundred yards, half right, was a hill with houses that stood out. About the same distance, half left, there was a lower hill on which a good number of the division’s transport vehicles were parked. To our immediate rear there was a very muddy stream, which was half dried up, making it difficult to cross at any great speed. The rear bank of this stream was about ten feet high with a row of quite tall trees along it, so were unable to see anything to our rear beyond these trees. There were some troops on our right flank but seemed to be small in number and I did not know who they were.
As it was almost dark we were hastily strung out into some kind of defensive position and told to have each alternative man awake for two hours while the other slept. This did not work out too well and we spent the night in a semi-daze, not seeming to be asleep or awake, though we were soon wide awake when anything happened. We all felt very cold throughout the night, our shirts had become wet with the day’s sweat and the night came so quickly they did not have a chance to dry out.
After a few hours had passed the Japs started to call us, giving us the creeps and the feeling that you wanted to be just a little closer to the man next to you. We kept quiet in order to conceal our position though the temptation to yell something back was strong. Our silence did not last long before somebody thought he saw something and loosed off a round or two.
Then somebody joined in, then another, until almost everyone was as it and it took us NCOs some effort to stop it. Dire threats from Ginger prevented it from occurring again and we gained control over our fire.
I remember how we had scoffed at the Burma Rifles the night before. All was not fantasy, though, and several times during the night there really was the enemy out there and we opened fire, but this time it was under control. We stood up at dawn and wondered what the day would bring. There was a lot of talk of hearing a very loud explosion in the early hours and that the bridge over the river had been blown up, but not having heard it I put it down to yet another rumour. The country was a place full of rumours and superstition.
A Jap reconnaissance plane nipped in very low and waggled its wings over our position, so low that you could clearly see the face of the pilot. Everyone shot at it and it came down with a sickening crash which put great heart into us and we all cheered. Credit was given to an Anglo-Burmese from an auxiliary 18pdr battery because he looked so spectacular firing a Lewis Gun from a tripod. He certainly did a very good job but with so many people firing it could have been anyone not me though, because I was still saving two magazines for a close target.
I was ordered to take up a position about halfway to our right-hand hill with Jack Longden and Smith 83, both from the band. Stuck out there in the middle of the paddy we seemed to be a long way from anyone else and setting up the gun on a paddy bund I started to scrape a hole with my bayonet, we did not have any trenching tools, The ground was like concrete and I had not reached any depth when a burst of fire splattered about me from the hill.
Ginger Yarnold shouted from a distance: “Can you see it?“ and without even looking I shouted back ” “No”. That I had not even looked before I shouted pricked my conscience as a newly promoted full corporal, so I put my helmet on top of the paddy bund (about nine inches high) and waited a minute or so. Nothing happened, so I put my head over and had a good search round with my monocular. Seeing nothing I turned to the sergeant and shouted: “I can’t see anything at all sergeant” and went back to my observing.
Another long burst came which sent the dirt into my face, so I kept my head down and dozed off, dreaming of ice cold water. The voice of Mr Travis awakened me, he was standing beside me and wanted to know if I wanted some food. I frantically urged him to take cover but he did not seem to be “with it” and gave me half a bully biscuit. I asked him for some water and he said he would get me some, to my relief he went. I tried to eat the biscuit but my mouth was so dry I could not and it fell out as I lay dozing.
All alone and exposed
I was not at all sorry when we were recalled to the platoon, feeling the comfort of the crowd. It was put to me that, with my section of two, we should cover the withdrawal of the platoon to another position, and we would remain where we were until order were received to retire.
The hours seemed to drag by as we lay there, all alone and exposed, with nobody in sight or sound. Smith was not at all happy about this situation and suggested that we were going to be very lucky if we got any further order from anyone, and I had a sickening feeling that he might be right. I was ordered to hold that position and come what may I was going to do it. So more hours passed by and we all felt a certain nervousness.
I saw a party of Japs pass under the railway bridge about six hundred yards away, then another lot with a mule. Setting drum sight at 600x I decided to let the next lot have it. A few quick bursts would not give them time to locate us. Presently a whole crowd came and I gave them two regulation bursts as per pamphlet. I do not know where those shots landed but those Japs scattered quite smartly. I had humped this gun long enough and it was time I used it.
Hearing voices to our left I had a momentary panic but they were our own people. It was Captain Christison with Boynton, Cooney, and another those name I have forgotten, and they were from the carrier platoon. I told Captain Christison of my predicament and he told me that he had not intention of staying there, and advised me to get out while I could. Scrambling over the muddy stream they disappeared, Boynton to be killed that day and all the others a few weeks later.
Still not happy about abandoning my position I sent Smith off to try to locate the platoon, to tell them that our position was hopeless, and request permission to withdraw. If he found it too dangerous to return he was not to bother and we would withdaw at 1300hrs, orders or not. As he crossed the stream he was greeted a long burst from a machine gun, but with luck on his side he somehow got over intact. We had been located by the enemy and rifle fire came our way which grew heavier as time passed, so after some time I told Jack to make a dash for it and to cover me as I followed. We did this without anything coming our way.
Once over the embankment we had a good view of a massive river several hundred yards away. There was no sign of Smith or anyone else, so we headed in the direction of a bridge that was about half a mile away, and had a span hanging in the water.
Thick bamboo pole
On reaching the river bank I was surprised to see it deserted, not a soul in sight. While making up our minds as to how we could cross, a man appeared from nowhere who was from our platoon. He told me that the platoon had made rafts but they fell apart and he was able to scramble back to the shore. He feared that many had drowned. He was a poor swimmer and did not know what to do to cross as the river looked the better part of a mile at this spot. He said that the bridgehead had been taken by the Japs (this was not so) – could we help him? I told him that I feared we would not be able to offer him much as we were going to have a job to manage it ourselves, but we would not desert him. He decided to try the bridge again and I was jolly glad to see him go. Somehow he got over the river and I am pleased to say he survived the war.
Jack found a very thick bamboo pole and, stripping the Bren for the very first time, I threw it into the river, along with everything else I had. Clad in only our short we had a good drink out of the river and set off on our pole. It was nice to discover that we could wade abut two hundred yards before we got out of our depth, pointing a pole at a landmark we swam and thanked the fact that we had been made to learn to swim when stationed at Malta with the 1st Battalion.
Once again we lost all sense of time, we just swam and swam, resting every now and then, but after a while the pole became waterlogged and would only bear the weight of one person. Jack got cramp and I was beginning to feel very tired. I could see that we could soon be in serious trouble and felt anxious about it. Fortunately a solitary man caught up with us, he seemed to come out of the blue, and, telling us that he was a very strong swimmer, he got his shoulder under the pole to support us, taking the weight. We were able to relax and recover some strength. Our saviour turned out to be a bombadier from the Anglo-Burmese 18 pdr battery. He was well over six feet in height and lived in Rangoon. He chatted for the rest of the swim and it put new heart into us.
Quite some distance further I thought I felt my foot touch something which was most gratifying. Another few yards and our gunner pal let out a whoop of joy. He had hit bottom. We had done it and the feeling of relief was something I could never describe. We crawled out of the water and were momentarily unable to stand but after a rest we got back again and decided to report somewhere. Finding a Burmese soldier, who sat cross legged with a Tommy Gun, the gunner asked him in his own language where we should go and after a lot of jabber we were informed to head for the town of Waw, the direction of which he gave with a nonchalant wave of his arm.
We set of walking and soon found the hard baked paddy was very tough on our feet, and so hot it was like walking on the top of an oven, but after a while we got used to it and plodded on.
Later we met up with a lad from the Carrier Platoon called Donkersley who had an Indian soldier from the Dogra Regiment with him. He told us they had crossed the river together and the Dogra stuck to him like glue all the time. As we had no head-cover I was worried we might get sunstroke in the hot sun, also that we might get badly sunburned as we were clad in nothing but our shorts.
As we approached the first village about fifty of the male population turned out, they were all armed with dahs (Burmese tool/weapon rather like a machette) and advanced on us in a threatening manner, making a lot of noise. I regretted that we had not attempted to bring Jack’s rifle with us on the pole.
Passed from village to village
There were some bamboo poles stacked nearby, about six feet long and sharpened at one end, so we armed ourselves with these and lined up at the high port ready to do a controlled charge and hopefully scatter them gunner shouted something to them and then went forward on his own to parley, telling us to remain still for a while.
They turned out to be friendly and took us to their village where the whole population gathered giving us Burmese tea and rice which was plain boiled and very dry. Despite our lack of food over the past few days we were unable to eat it having no appetite whatever. They informed us that the local penal colony had been let loose and they feared we might have been convicts who were roaming the area in bands, robbing and causing havoc in general. That was the reason for the hot reception. Thank heavens I did not have Jack’s rifle for I would have surely opened fire on them. Giving us bamboo conical shaped coolly hats, they advised us to roll in the mud to make ourselves look like Burmese. If a Jap plane came we should wave in a friendly manner and, thinking we were locals, they might fly away. Lieutenant Colonel Owen was murdered by dacoits in a Burmese village and I have since wondered if this has been the place and the murderers convicts. I do not suppose we will ever know. However, they were very kind and helpful to us, poor as they were.
Giving us a guide to introduce us to the next village we shook hands and departed. And in this manner we were passed from village to village. At one time a Jap plane did pass us but it was too far away for us to bother waving.
At one village we were surrounded by a large mob, which was too close for comfort. Among them were several Burmese religious men (Pongyis) with their shaved heads and saffron coloured clothes. Their attitude was very different and we could sense serious trouble, the pongyis were egging them on. I decided to bluff it out with them and got gunner to spin a yarn that there was a great new army which had just arrived from England which would be looking for us. Every man was armed with a machine gun and they rode in great big wagons, which nothing could stop or penetrate, called tanks. They got quite excited saying that they had seen these soldiers and the “gharries” which did not run on wheels but chains. They were a few miles down the tarmac road that let to Waw. The bit they said about running on chains surprised us and made us think. So while there were jabbering among them selves we edged out and got away feeling a whole lot better.
Some followed us for a while and I think if one had shouted they would have attacked us. One by one they lost interest and trickled away. Gunner said that he had expected them to attack us and wondered why they had not. It was nice to be on a proper road and even better to be away from the hostile oriental mob.
Where are your weapons?
Coming to the metalled road we met a Burmese man on a bicycle who was a civil servant and spoke very good English. He was very distressed to see us in such a poor state and did his best to give me both his shoes and his bicycle. I told him that I was most grateful but in no way would I take these things from him, so he gave us a drink of some spirit from a bottle which really put some life into us. He said that there was a train leaving Waw in about one hour’s time for Rangoon and it would be the last before the railway packed up. He was on his way to his village to see if his family was alright as everything had broken down in Waw and he did not know what to do. I advised him to stay with his folks and when the Japs came not to antagonize them, and to keep his eyes and ears open for when we returned because we would surely do that, even if it took a year or so. We decide to run the three miles and it was getting dark when we came to the outskirts of that small Burmese town.
We came to some British soldiers who were brewing tea on both sides of the road and went to the nearest of them who happened to be a brigadier. ‘Who the hell are you, why are you in such a state, and where are your weapons?” were some of the questions he screamed at us. We tried to explain, but he did not listen and ordered the nearest sergeant to hand us over to the military police. The sergeant ordered us to sit down and await the MPs. The soldiers were cooking a meal and I asked if they could let us have something and the reply was “No you can’t” I tried to explain what we had been through but they did not want to know we found it very humiliating to be treated in such a manner, more so by men who were not front line troops. We were nearly in tears and felt very bitter indeed. The bitterness that I felt towards that corps I have retained for many a year. It all seemed so unfair. After a while the MPs came, and we were so fed up we could not have cared what they did to us. Without a word to us they took us down a street and to our great joy we found the Dukes once again, or what was left of them. RQMS Hunt gave me a blanket, somebody else two cream biscuits, and I lay down with the mosquitoes in the stinking oriental street for the night, but I was unable to sleep at all.
I noted that gunner had disappeared without a word. Later in the campaign I met a chap from his unit who told me he was awaiting a court martial for desertion and I never heard of him again. I hope he got away with it. How anyone could have been accused of that in the circumstances we had endured I do not know.