Burma and Back - Bill Hannah
Bill Hanna of the Gordon Highlanders & 255 Ind Tank Bde
A Condensed recollection of my Father's War, through England, the Orkneys, India and then Burma.
My Father took part in the 14th army advance on Meiktila in Burma and then went on to liberate Rangoon from the Japanese army of occupation.
If the Atom Bomb had not put paid to the conflict, Japan itself was next on the menu. Given the tenacity of the Japanese soldiers, it is possible I would not be recording these recollections today.
The world today, for all its' faults is a different place because of people like these and the sacrifices they made. The army in Burma was called the forgotten Army and indeed there is little in our Libraries on the subject. I have looked. Perhaps this record will redress the balance a little.
This is their story.
Trooper 2874371 James Clark
Trooper 2884497 William Hannah
Trooper 2874351 John Quinn
These 3 particular Scottish Soldiers from Shotts, North Lanarkshire, were invited by the Queen to assist in the prosecution of World War 2 on 29th January 1940. RSVP not required.
Reporting to the 9th Gordon Highlanders' barracks at Wightmans' Old Factory in Dunfermline, they endured the customary 3 months basic training followed by 4 weeks sandbagging key installations in the Town itself.
First order was "hands up all the tradesmen" which is how my Father got into HQ Company, and discovered the joys of working as Company Butcher (along with 371 Clark and George Graham from Airdrie).
HQ Company was an easy billet compared to normal duties. He had served his time as a Butcher with George Hutton in Shotts prior to the war and fell into cookhouse duties easily.
Early on, the 6th/9th Gordons, a pre-war territorial unit from Aberdeenshire were split to make the 6th and 9th Battalions with their strength made up from Conscripts to give a balance of trained and "green" servicemen.
The 6th Gordons were already on their way to France to help stem the advance of the German Army. Later, almost all of them were to go into captivity as POW's having been surrounded by the enemy.
My Father's Cousin, John Hannah, went into captivity with these men, having never fired his rifle in anger. They were simply told one morning to stack their weapons and prepare to go into captivity. He spent the war as forced labour in the German Coal mines once they discovered he was a coal miner. At least they were fed, as a hungry worker is of little use. Opportunities for sabotage were few, as they were carefully watched. Survival being the goal, he sent home via the red cross for his own pit boots and moleskin trousers, which duly arrived. He survived the experience but died a year after coming repatriation, from natural causes (Spanish Flu?).
One of the bigger jobs for the 9th Gordons was creating a tented camp at Craig Lusker for Canadians destined for service overseas, in Norway.
At night, these men would drink in the same Pubs as the Gordons, but were also allowed in during the day as they were due to be embarked.
It was noticed that the prices were higher during the day for the Canadians, and this so incensed the Canadians and Gordons, that they decided to wreck the bar and then leg it.
Thus begins a glorious history of wrecking bars where servicemen were being fleeced or maltreated.
Around this period, Trooper Hannah discovered an aversion to army porridge resulting in an extended stay in an Army hospital in the Carnegie Institute. After changing his breakfast cereal to Grape Nuts, the reaction calmed down, but the nursing staff were so tickled to have help with the daily chores around the institute from the "walking wounded" that they delayed his release as much as possible.
As the food was better and guard duty non-existent, Trooper Hannah was happy to help out.
Pausing at Saint Andrews for a week erecting a Tented Camp for Canadians returning from hard duty in Norway, the next posting was to the Estate of Lord Aberdeen at Haddo House, between Methlick and Tarves. Here they were formed into a Mobile column (mobile as in buses were provided!) designed to respond to any threatened invasion by the enemy.
(insert date of leaving) Leaving from Aberdeen on the Isle of Man Steam Packet, MV Ben McCree bound for Stromness on the Orkney Main Island. A short bus trip took them to Kirkwall where they undertook various duties and training, including helping the Royal Engineers create Nissan hut type Army Camps to expand the troop garrison.
Pending completion of the Camps, the troops were billeted in Ayre Mills. This was a commandeered grain mill across the road from Hatston Aerodrome, a Fleet air arm facility on the edge of Kirkwall bay.
Being an operational aerodrome, this was a scene of great activity, with Blackburn Rocs, Skuas and Gloster Gladiator Fighters being flown daily.
Later, RAF Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were based at Skeabrae aerodrome for defence against enemy raiders, the Gloster Gladiators already being regarded as obsolete, although they could outturn most fighters of the day. The problem was that they lacked speed and heavy armament.
The Fleet air arm regularly practised bombing on an abandoned Freighter in Kirkwall bay using Flour bombs to mark their hits.
At least their time there was marked by good food and accommodation, making up somewhat for the wind and the weather in all the 20 months service in the Orkneys, home leave was only granted once, for 2 weeks in April ‘41.
On arriving home, the snow in Shotts was as high as the roofs of the motor cars and unemployed men not yet called for service were used to clear the roads. Granted there was less of a constant breeze than in the Orkneys.
Another good billet was the regimental Pipe Band, and here it was that 497 Hannah and a good few others joined the Pipers.
On leave, my Father danced with a Lady called Madeline Trainer at the Shotts Welfare hall, who later travelled on the same convoy to India. She was last seen in Puna tending to the injured, and it is assumed she survived the war. It's a small world.
At nights in Kirkwall, unless an alert was in progress or you had pulled Guard duty, the Troops would head for Kirkwall Town for some R&R. The "Kirkwall arms" beside the Pier was a favourite haunt in fair weather, but such was demand, that standard operating procedure was to get an empty glass and pass it in the window with the correct money inside. In due course, a Pint of Beer would make its' way back out to you. There were literally thousands of all-services troops stationed in the Islands at this time, as it was considered a potential invasion route. Guard duty could be guarding base facilities, or it could be 14 days guarding a vulnerable point on some part of the coastline.
This was a cold duty to pull, based with a cook and 12 men on some wind blasted headland, with the sea mist and cold sapping the strength from you, but they were assured it was a necessary evil. Standard kit for these duties were 2 No. 18 radio sets (man portable), Bren guns, rifles and grenades. Sometimes a Lewis gun was provided for aerial defence.
A field Telephone was provided as well, but the radios were the main means of communication. Vulnerable points were usually protected by a concrete Pill box. Even today, some of these tough structures still exist. Around the coastline were many Royal Navy ships, patrolling, refuelling, rearming and repairing. There were regular visitors from the Lufwaffe on reconnaissance missions, but they never ventured low enough to be engaged by the Allied AAA. On the occasions when they got a little cheeky, the RAF would send up some fighters to chase them off. It was a tense time for Britain, with Dunkirk behind us and the threat of invasion very real. The sailors from HMS Hood were regulars in the "Kirkwall Arms", and my Father remembers the sailors being recalled to the Ship at 9 pm one evening by the military police, and the next piece of news was that the 'Hood had been lost with all hands in action with the Graf Spee. A shot from the German Raider had hit the magazines and the great ship was lost.
Christmas '41 my Father spent in the Company of a rear gunner from a German Junkers 88 aircraft, shot down by the Allied AAA. Both of his legs were broken when he crash landed and his wounds were being tended in the Hospital. With the aid of a phrasebook, a conversation of sorts could be made. It turned out that he was a locksmith to trade, with a wife and 2 children, and had been called up to the army. Afterwards he had been trained as a Luftwaffe rear gunner. They were on a reconnaissance mission when allied AAA had brought them down. Once he was able to walk on crutches, he was sent to an allied POW camp for enemy airmen in England.
There were also Italian POW/Internee camps in Orkney later on after the Gordons had left, and they constructed a Chapel from surplus materials as make work. Apparently it still stands.
After the bulk of Camp construction was finished, the troops were moved to a Camp at Tormiston, roughly 1 mile from Loch Stenness, on the road to Dounby. With further Conscription, additional troops had arrived to assist with construction and guarding duties and this allowed a period of intensive training for Combat to begin.
Water was drawn from a local burn to keep the water tankers supplied with water for ablutions, and to provide water for fire fighting. To pump the water, a Petrol/paraffin "Grays" pumping engine was procured from a local farmer, which turned out to be less than reliable. The engineers laboured long and hard to get it going again, with no success.
Willie Blackwood (more of him later) had finished his duties and had sloped off for a fly cigarette, and watched bemused as '497 tried to start this pumping engine, the fitters having given up the ghost and gone looking for a friendly cup of tea.
"What would happen if I tossed a lighted matched into the exhaust?" he wondered aloud, on sniffing the petrol fumes from the recalcitrant Donkey engine. Before an answer could be given, the threatened match was produced and launched, followed by a torch of flame 5 feet long - and then a thud, followed by another, and the engine started pumping.
The mechanics came running down to see which genius had found how to get the darned thing started, and it took the promise of their Sergeant that they wouldn't be up on a charge before the secret was finally revealed. It seems that the spark plug, due to its position was prone to fouling, and a good severe roasting had cleared it.
Training consisted of weekly route marches starting at 10 miles and building up to 30miles in a day in full marching order. Normally, a Piper would head the marching column, and the officer on one march was drawn from the London Scottish regiment, under a service transfer. Battle dress was normally worn for all ranks on route marches, but the officer wore a plain Kilt of Hodden grey, and was English born.
When the Piper stops playing, you can take a 10 minute rest after 50 minutes marching, but the officer was adamant that the troops should march for a full hour and ordered the men to carry on marching. At the next due break, the Piper studiously ignored the pleas of the officer to stop, and as the officer couldn't be heard over the Pipes, they had an extra 10 minutes marching. In future, the officer allowed the Piper ( Big Fergie, a reform school graduate) to keep time.
In early 1942, the 9th were sent to join the Northumbrian Division, as the threat of invasion waned in the Orkneys. Ports of call were Alnwick, Morpeth, Newcastle and a tented camp at Gunnerton, a small village in the Cheviot Hills, prior to embarkation for foreign climes. When based in Newcastle, the Troops had an evening pass and were at Almouth for dancing and refreshment. A German Lone raider, having missed his presumed primary target at Newcastle, dumped his bombs over the Town on his way back to the Fatherland. The pilot may have been trying to dump the bombload at sea, but the effect of the two bombs dropped on Almouth was terrible with heavy civilian casualties.
Local troops were commandeered to assist with evacuation of casualties and making safe of structures, using any materials they could commandeer. House doors were used as makeshift stretchers for example. They laboured long into the night and returned to camp with an officer to explain their absence in the guardroom, at Gam. This was the first time the war had been up close and personal for most men, and the lesson was salutary. From Gunnerton, overseas vaccination were given along with the customary feinting spells then leave for 2 weeks was granted in May 42...embarkation leave it transpired.
On June 42, 9th Gordon Highlanders embarked at the Shieldhall docks in Glasgow on the SS Otranto of the Orient Line bound for India. The convoy commodores' ship was the SS Orcades, also of the Orient Line. Beside them in the Convoy was the SS Orion, holding Queen Alexandra nurses, (their grey, red lined cloaks could be clearly seen). The convoy layoff the tail '0 the bank at Greenock for 4 days as the convoy formed up, and was so big you could see neither the start nor the end of it.
A convoy from Belfast joined them, and they steamed straight out into the Atlantic to confuse enemy observers. Once again a Butcher on board in HQ Company, cookhouse duties were the road to good feeding and guard duty avoidance. Also, the ships crew were a better source of information than the formal lines of communication.
Accommodation was spartan, and crowded at night. Keeping the troops occupied was a self help exercise with some breaks for PE and kit cleaning. Illegal gambling was rife and one individual sent £150 home from Durban in South Africa when army pay was 14 shillings a week (70p). Aboard ship, Crown and Anchor was the favourite game.
The English officers had a yen for Potted Hough, which is made by boiling cheaper cuts of meat for hours until it jellifies. They would ask for this by name, and 497 was happy to oblige, as the cookhouse staff could then dine on the better beef which was slated for the officers. Poetic justice of a sort. First stop on the voyage was at Sierra Leone for refuelling and reprovisioning. Although not allowed ashore, a small armada of small local boats arrived and all manner of goods could be bought for little money by the troops onboard.
If the Soldiers obliged and threw over a Glasgow Tanner (2.5p) the locals would dive into the water for it, and return to the surface with the coin clenched between their teeth, which they would then keep. The ship stopped once again for refuelling and provisioning at Durban, South Africa. Over the 4 days in Port, leave was granted in phases to the restless troops.
Amongst the throng heading through the door of the first pub, was a coloured trooper called Joe Parker, from Glasgow. Being the last in, it was not at first noticed that he had almost immediately been tossed back out again, on account of the colour of his face. The 9th Gordons then decided to take the Bar apart, (again) along with the objectionable doormen, on the grounds that those who fight with us, drink with us, and sod the colour of his face.
When the shore patrol arrived, the Gordons had scampered, and no amount of searching could find them. When the gangway guard was questioned, he reported that no-one from shore leave had yet returned. The shore patrol posted a guard of their own to catch the bar room redecorators on their return to ship. Given that the gangway guard was another yet another Shottsman, and that all his cronies were already safely onboard, they had little chance of catching them. The next 3 days, unfortunately, were spent keeping a low profile aboard ship.
Comrades in Arms 1, Apartheid nil.
497 Hannah met an American in Durban who was bragging about the famous American Tennis Player Bob Taylor. He replied that back in Shotts, they had 50 bob tailors …
"Where's this shotts place then?" said the American.
"Stop the first black face and ask .." says 497. They did and he pointed to a streetlight. Sure enough, it said "Made in Shotts Ironworks" on the base. The ironworks boast was that they "Lit the World". They're probably still there.
Once at sea, the convoy passed Madagascar and they realised that they were headed for India. Finally the ship docked, and 9th Gordons and many others disembarked at Bombay. Here it was that the Brass hats announced that they would forevermore be known as 255 Independent Indian Tank Brigade, comprising 3 regiments and be trained in Tank Warfare. A time of surprises.
255 Independent Indian Armoured Brigade was comprised of 116th (Gordons) RAC, two Indian Army units, (the Probyns Horse Cavalry Reg. and the Deccan Horse Cavalry Reg.) and 18th Field Reg. RA (25 Pounders) with ancillary RASC Units comprising a company of the Bombay Grenadiers for tank protection. Field strength was approx 180 Sherman tanks and support (Check}(add model type M4A3?). And so onto the train at Bombay bound for a 5 day journey to Sialkot. Here we discovered the Batta shoe company which makes drumskins and spares for Pipe Bands, so they stocked up as they passed for the Pipe Band, which as a matter of course was with them throughout the conflict.
Andrew Hare from Tannochside was the Pipe Major, having replaced the original Territorial Pipe Major who was considered too old for overseas service. Andra' was a Tank Commander, and played the Pipes hanging from his Sherman Turret as 255 were rolling down the main street of Rangoon, having liberated it, as well as any other opportunity which presented itself. Andra' was famous for playing the Pipes from his turret as they advanced and was once rebuked for it as the Japanese Soldiers would hear them coming. Andra's reply was that he was sat on top of 1000hp of roaring engine, and that anyway, they wanted them to know that they were coming, as if the Japs had any sense, they would have legged it before they got there With a Scots regiment, Gurkha infantry and Indian support troops, he had a point.
At Sialkot they learned about radio operations in the field for a few months, and learned how to keep vehicles operational in a tropical climate. 254 brigade had been there before them and had moved on into Burma already. All the Troopers who could drive were tasked with teaching everyone else to drive on any vehicles they could procure. These were usually ex civilian cars and Trucks. Everyone had to have 2 primary skills, such as wireless operator/ driver, like '497 Hannah, although they were later trained at Secunderabad to carry out all the jobs in the tanks, at need.
Armament practice was also carried out on Small arms and Bren Guns. Basic Gunnery practice was carried out on main guns removed from old Tanks to demonstrate the first principles. Radio technique was practised using No.18 and No.19 sets along with Morse code practice (at 12 words per minute for an operator). If you couldn't learn to drive, it was back to the PBI (poor bloody infantry) for you.
Once more onto the Train to Secunderabad for another 4 or 5 days in the humid heat. Secunderabad is the white cantonment area of Hyderabad on the Deccan plateau. Here they were introduced to Grant and Lee tanks from the armaments depot at Amadnaggar and a course of intensive training in how to fight with armoured vehicles began. The Grant tank had a 75mm gun in a sponson on the side and a turret mounted 47 mm cannon along with a 0.5" machine gun. The Lee had a 75mm gun in the Turret, coaxed with a machine gun, and a 47 mm cannon on a ball mount for the co-driver. They had a 9 cylinder Wright Cyclone aero engine to deliver the necessary horsepower, and the flames from the exhausts were memorable, as was the noise.
'497 usually drove a Canadian built 7 ton wheeled Ford Scout car at this time. The Indian drivers in the area were a source of amazement, as they were used to spare parts being in short supply. This meant they regularly changed gear without the use of the clutch by carefully timing gearchange and rpm, to save on Clutch wear.
Unbelievably, there is a Chinese restaurant in Secunderabad, called "The Great China Restaurant". This was a 2 storey building with the 1st floor open to the skies, and was popular with the troops on evening leave. One night, 497 Hannah and Donald McKee, a cook with 18th Field reg. were invited to a meal by Sgt McBurnie of the Cameronians who came from Renfrew, and who had married a local lady. He had transferred to the Indian Corps of Clerks after his marriage to remain with his wife, who also worked in the Corps.
497 ordered egg, chicken, tomato rice, and the evening went well until the bill arrived. Even by wartime fIeecing standards the bill was high, and Sgt. McBurnie told the troopers to fetch 3 tongas (a small horse draw cart) and leg it over the low wall.
He followed a few moments later with the complete dinner service wrapped in the table cloth, after sending the waiter away with the Cash to pay the bill …
Secunderabad lasted several months.
On the road again to Puna where the monsoons broke, then on to Dewass, where the road was submerged and 255 lost 2 men when the roadbridge assumed to be under the water turned out to have been washed away. One was killed by the impact with the steering wheel, and one died subsequently of pneumonia, only Gordon Reid having escaped unscathed. Website links show the Grave.
Next stop by road was Lucknow, then Ranchi where they stopped for 3 weeks prior to a move into Burma itself. At the end of 3 weeks they moved on to Calcutta where they were introduced to their Sherman tanks,
These fine, hardy machines were armed with a 75mm main gun, an Oerliken 0.5" ball mounted Machine Gun and a turret mounted MG as well. This model had engines with 5 banks of 6 general motors petrol engines slaved to a common shaft to give sufficient horsepower. Tracing a spark plug fault on 30 cylinders could be a long job ,but an inventive Signaller called Baxter found an easier way, which comprised a handful of wires and neon lights. When connected to the ignition system, a "Pink Mouse" would run all over the engine banks, as each cylinder fired in turn. In this way, the faulty Plug could be traced and replaced easily.
An officer noticed it, took it to Brigade for evaluation, and the invention later turned up after the war as a standard piece of Army Kit. The inventor did not apparently receive credit for his innovation, as it was invented in Army time.
The Shermans were fine machines, given their intended purpose, and although sometimes outgunned in the European theatre, the best the Japanese could muster could be opened up like a bean tin by the main '75.
Sickness was always a worry in these hot sticky climates and 497 Hannah went down with a bout of Dengue Fever, caught by being bitten by the Dengue Fly, most likely by brushing against the undergrowth wearing only Short trousers. The symptoms are like Malaria, but fortunately do not recur. Giving a medical history of past diseases as including Dengue Fever still causes raised eyebrows with the Local Doctors at home today, and has them scrabbling for medical dictionaries but rather that than Malaria. Dengue fever does not recur, Malaria does. Other troops were suffering with an outbreak of Typhus, but at least the threat of Malaria was held at bay. Every day the troops had to swallow Mepecrine tablets which slowly turned the whites of your eyes yellow, and presumably made your blood taste unfit for sucking. Salt tablets were also issued each day to replace the salt lost by sweating, and two tanks with a chain strung between them used to clear all the scrub, to minimise troop losses from disease. Other precautions were the use of mosquito nets, and as a defence against termites, anything of value was placed with its' legs on tin cans filled with paraffin. Every week in rotation, the troops bedding and bed was boiled in a large tank filled with dilute Lysol to keep disease at bay.
After extensive training, the tanks were finally loaded onto rail flatcars, and 255 set off for Gauhati in Assam. Once there they put the Tanks onto transporters, and moved down to the 117th milestone on the road to Imphal, south of Kohima.
On arrival 200 drivers were sent back to Calcutta to ferry new trucks and Jeeps back for brigade use in the campaign ahead. By this time, '497 was driving a Chevrolet 15 cwt truck which provided good sleeping accommodation meanwhile, but which was to be replaced the workhorse of the campaign, the Willys Jeep.
Prior to this time, The Japanese Army had been met and finally repulsed at heavy cost by Allied Infantry at Kohima. Just after passing Kohima, 255 heard the story of the Japanese army carrying a small field artillery piece in sections to the top of a hill, and digging in to a Cave. Every time allied troops tried to move down the road, the artillery piece would emerge from cover and shell them. Given the angle involved, the allied tanks could not silence the gun, so a bulldozer was tasked with hauling a tank up the hillside in stages, using his main winch. In this way, the tank could get sufficient angle to engage the Japanese field piece, which it did, successfully.
Further down, in the Gangaw Valley, a story was carried of a similar situation, where a transportable field piece was engaging allied troops from a high cave. Finally a detachment of Gurkhas were sent up the hill and one, with a rope round his waist, a sten gun and some grenades, was lowered head first over the cave mouth. The Japanese gunners would not oblige by coming out to fire, so a truck was sent down the road as bait. The gunners came out to engage the truck, and the Gurkha despatched the whole lot. According to the tale, a VC followed that action.
The tank was left in position, and later was painted and turned into a Memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives in the actions in the area. It is still there today, and a photograph is on the Burmastar.org website.
As the Japanese were at the end of a long logistics tail, and had to prevail to gain the supplies to go on, this was the beginning of the end for them in Burma. Nevertheless, the Japanese surrounded and cut off 7th Division at Imphal for a period and had to be supplied by airdrop. Some of 255 including 497 Hannah volunteered to fly with the American Dakota aircraft dropping supplies to our beleaguered troops, and the low altitude of the crop usually resulted in the planes returning with more ventilation holes than when they began.
Fortunately our troops were relieved at Imphal but not before the Japanese had bayoneted the wounded soldiers and the Princess Alexandra Nurses in the field hospital. It was uncommon for allied soldiers to hear a plea for surrender from the Japanese soldiers, but after this atrocity the offer was not often made. To the Japanese soldier, death is preferable to capture, and to die for the Emperor was a straight ticket to paradise. A defeated enemy was less than dirt beneath your toenails, and was treated as such. Thus began the long chase of the enemy through the mayan mar, punctuated by intense battles at strong points.
Next port of call was Palel where 255 were to spend Christmas and Hogmanay and to kill time until the 200 drivers returned, hopefully loaded with booze for the festive season as well as the promised vehicles. The enterprising officers had hacked down some teak trees to make an impromptu officers mess, and this was unfortunately photographed for public consumption back home and was displayed in the "Tatler" magazine. The impromptu construction caused an uproar as the shareholders in the Teak forests complained about the unnecessary damage to their investments Portfolio.
The officers politely invited them to come out and try defending their portfolio, but they declined.
It is as well that they didn't see the standard army way of creating a road where none existed, but Teak trees did
Hogmanay at Palel was interrupted in a frantic search for “Poker” Black, a Batman, who went missing. After 3 days he was found, underneath a stretcher, still drunk. It seems the local home made hooch had laid him low, made from the syrup of many tins of peaches as a backup plan if the booze convoy had hit problems.
Here 255 were joined by the 4th Gurkha rifles, who were to be with them as infantry throughout their campaign. Tank Protection was provided by the Bombay Grenadiers, and every time the tanks stopped, these men would drop down off the vehicle and form a defensive perimeter to prevent Suicide Jockeys from diving under the tank with satchel charges, as had been known.
497 Hannah, by this time, was mostly in a Willys Jeep, cunningly converted with additional water, fuel, radios, bolted on stretchers (for sleeping) and rations. In the event that a tank main radio went U/S, the plan was for the Jeep to close to the Tanks' rear engine doors and use the field telephone there to pass orders. The jeep carried a No.19 radio set and a spare. Also in the convoy were Trucks and Bren carriers carrying all the supplies necessary to support a Tank Brigade in the Field.
Trooper Bailey from Airdrie was killed when his Lightly armoured Bren carrier ran over a landmine which several wider tracked tanks had already passed over. The end was mercifully swift as a charge designed to disable a main battle tank exploded beneath the narrower tracked carrier. Several others survived with wounds.
There was little to bury.
At night, the tanks were laagered with the soft skinned vehicles inside. Slit trenches were dug to protect against attack, and the men reminded not to sleep under the Tank, as it could settle in the night. The duty officer would set up machine guns demounted form the Tanks on fixed lines of fire, and at the sound of gunfire, the machine guns would open up in interlocking fields. One martinet of a Sergeant decided to check the troops were standing to, and although he was recognised, every time he showed his "steel Topi" over the slit trench wall, the guns would open up. He was still there in the morning.
Out at the defensive perimeter, the Gurkhas were stationed, 2 men to a trench. It was standard practice never to put 3 Gurkhas in a trench, as with 2, one will guard, 1 will sleep. With 3, 1 will watch, 1 will sleep, and 1 will strip off, grease his body, and draw his Ancestral Kukri to go looking for Japanese souvenirs. Only this blade requires to taste blood before returning to it's sheath, not the Sheffield steel one that the army issued, that was used for splitting sticks and opening tins, and could be obtained simply for the asking, as it had no honour. If a Gurkha fell in combat, his comrades would retrieve his Ancestral Kukri, for return home, and vesting with the next eldest son. Gurkhas were not normally seen carrying bayonets, preferring the Kukri. At Kohima, it is said that a Japanese officer carrying his traditional Samurai sword and a Gurkha soldier squared off at knife fighting distance in a trench, and both drew steel.
The Gurkha slashed horizontally and the officer said "Ha! Missed!" "Fair enough" said the Gurkha.."Nod your head then "…………
A Shotts Infantryman from the time remarked that they would find a clearing during the dusk, and pitch their bivouac tent for the night, but not to sleep in. Sleeping quarters were up the nearest tree, roped on, with your jungle no4 carbine slung across your lap and the mosquito net draped over. In the morning's light, they would find the tent slashed to pieces, yet had never heard a sound. Another good tip was never to lace your boots crosswise, in the Japanese fashion. If you were stupid enough to actually sleep in your tent, a wandering Gurkha, might feel around the tent base, and if your boots were not laced as per kings regulations, you might wake up minus some parts you hold dear. If not true, then these are certainly amazing stories, and indicative of these fierce, loyal hill tribesmen. It is not recorded if they terrified the Japanese.
The Enemy used a similar tactic, called "Jitter raids", where one lone attacker would try to spear an allied soldier with a sharpened stick. The resulting screams would wear away at the allied morale and ability to fight.
These Gurkha excursions were never officially sanctioned, and maltreatment of prisoners was punished In accordance with the rules of war.
Back with the war, and a sortie was planned for the tanks of 255 and the infantry of 7th Division to advance and take Pakoku. A high chimney was spotted on the opposite bank of the river with a sniper engaging the troops from a position on top.
The officer commanding got as far as "Chimney stack, right..." when the first 75 mm cannon fired. Some enterprising soul had it already dialled in, awaiting the command.
"Who fired that shot...charge that man!" was the retort. Then..."No! damn fine shooting"…..,Willie Blackwood from CarnBroe near Coatbridge was the man, his small frame marking him for duty on the main gun in the cramped confines of the Shermans' turret.
At night the tanks returned having accomplished their mission, but one tank had 2 teeth missing from its left main sprocket. This was removed, roped onto the rear of 497 Hannahs' jeep and despatched to the field workshops at Palel for repair. On the way back (70 miles round trip) Corporal Sammy Morgan from Strathdon was sitting on the bonnet with the headlights out directing progress in the gloom. They realised they had overshot the Laager when a heavily armed Gurkha emerged from a bush saying "Japanny wallahs 100yds that way!.. 255 half mile that way " !
Almost bought the farm there.
After crossing the Irrawaddy, the threat of transportable Japanese field artillery was great. One man, Lance Corporal Nicol, had both hands removed by an armour piercing shot which hit between the first and second track sprockets on the tank where the armour was thin.
He was making a good recovery in the field hospital until he realised both hands were off, when he lost heart and slipped away.
By this time, standard armament for '497 was a Sten gun, instead of the Smith & Wesson '38 revolver they had started with. An armourer said that "when it's time to use this damn thing, it's long past time you were gone" The sten was a legendary spray gun, with a habit of not stopping when the trigger was released...It may not have frightened the enemy, as Wellington said, but it certainly frightened it's users. 255 then moved to join up with 17th Division for the crossing of the Irrawaddy bridgehead.
Overnight, Indian sappers built three sections of Bailey bridging on pontoons to float the tanks across. Before dawn the West Lancs, attempted a crossing by rubber boats and various local craft after being assured that the opposite beach was deserted or destroyed by artillery fire, but were repulsed by Japanese machine gun fire with heavy casualties. These men who were being given tea and sandwiches by 255 as they passed through the ranks, were later being recovered shot or drowned, from the river banks.
After daybreak, Mitchell bombers armed with bombs and a 75 mm cannon in the nose, cleared the area and covered the crossing of 255 on the pontoon floats. Every time the main gun fired, the aircraft would almost stop from the recoil..
To collapse the Japanese fortifications, a tank would simply drive over it, lock a tread and simply grind away until it collapsed in on the enemy. 255 remained to consolidate the Bridgehead and muster the force ready for a lightning dash straight towards Meiktila, to cut the sole road and rail link between Rangoon and Mandalay.
254 meantime struck out for Mandalay itself, and the tank transporters were dispatched to the Chauk oil fields; to raise a dust storm and fool the enemy into thinking that the target was the oil resources. After a day or so, they turned back, their mission of subterfuge presumably done. After several days taking part in the storming of Meiktila, 255 formed part of the defences with daily sorties to push the ousted defenders further away and sent out attacking sorties to cut off enemy troops fleeing from Mandalay where 2'"' Div had taken the Ava Bridge on the road into Mandalay.
2nd div were supported by 254 Brigade (3rd Dragoon Guards plus two Indian cavalry Regts.)
The defence occupation of Meiktila lasted approximately 6 weeks. Then 5th Division moved in to take over the occupation duties, relieving 17 div to continue the advance to Yamethin and Toungoo air field. During this time Trooper Greig of HO company cookhouse heard a Piano being played by a Dr. Husseins' daughter. It seemed that he had buried it when the Japs appeared, and went "native" as the Japanese Forces had a nasty habit of shooting educated people. Later they were to meet again.
At the next harbour the following day, near Yamethihn, whilst digging their slit trenches for safety during the night, '497s' partner Corporal Morgan left to use a nearby bush as a toilet. He came rushing back saying "There's a dead Jap lying over there and his leg looks shattered but he's sweating."
A passing Dogra officer was stopped and he ordered that two tow ropes be joined together and he went out and
attached them to the wrist of the body with a handkerchief, taking care not to move the "corpse" in case it was booby trapped, as was common. The other end was attached to the front of the jeep and trooper 497 Hannah lay on the floor of the jeep, working the pedals by hand to slowly drag the body forward. As they took the tension the dead Jap sat up and started shouting "Master, Master".
Not too dead at all it seems!
The wounded Jap was put on stretcher, patched up and sent to the field hospital. Later, when visiting the Field Hospital with Padre Welsh, the Injured Japanese Soldier Saluted 497 Hannah from his bed which was in the same ward, albeit with an armed soldier at the foot. It is likely that the Japanese soldier survived. I wonder if today, somewhere in Japan, a Japanese war veteran, perhaps a family, perhaps grandchildren, owe their existence to that small moment of mercy in a sea of death. Most Japanese soldiers believed they would be tortured or mutilated if captured alive. Given that the internet is world wide, it would be interesting to know if he made a full recovery.
One day, a sortie of Tanks were returning when a perimeter guard noticed there was one tank too many. The Japanese had repaired it, and tagged onto the end of the line, hoping to cause carnage inside the Laager. Also noticeable was that the tank had the wrong squadron emblem on its' side. 255 wore a white raging bull on a black background. This one wore a deccan horse or Probyn horse emblem which was suspicious and incorrect. After checking on the tank radios which regularly switched frequencies, the intruder was identified.
As it entered the harbour, an armour piercing rocket through the lightly armoured engine doors put paid to their scheme. When talking on the radio net, broad Scots at full speed is difficult enough to understand, coupled with frequent radio frequency changes. If the information was critical or over long range, one could use code in morse. If it was really secret, they reckoned they could use 2 or more Gaelic speakers, much as the American used Navaho indians as depicted in the the film “Windtalker”. I've never seen a Japanese/Gaelic Dictionary. In practical terms, broad Scots at normal speed defeated the English officers, never mind the Japs.
Yamethin: At Yamethin 255 had a short skirmish with a concealed short barrelled 75 mm portable gun which managed to split the convoy before the accompanying tanks and infantry swiftly dealt with it.
Pyinmana: By this time, the Japanese army was in full retreat and the bodies of dead enemy troops were a daily sight.
Toungoo: After routing the remaining defending troops the allies held Toungoo, and this proved useful for resupply by air. American light aircraft would also land to take out injured servicemen, and as they were being loaded, the Pilots would trawl the lines looking for rising sun flags, swords etc. for mementoes. Given that one of '497s jobs was to assist the Intelligence Sergeant search dead enemy for clues as to their unit and future plans, the opportunity to collect mementos was ever present.
These could be traded with the Pilots for goods of a more immediate kind, like Lucky strikes, Winstons and Beer. In this manner, a 9 mm Mauser officers pistol was traded, and on the next visit, the Sam Browne belt and cleaning kit for it.
Today, this item and the provenance that goes with it would be worth a small fortune. Then, the small comforts traded were worth more, and the original owner had no more use for it.
Such is war.
Pegu: Just outside Pegu the road splits for Moulmein and Rangoon. The Brigade came across a large number of British POW's being force marched by Burmese sympathisers towards Moulmein. The forward elements of the Brigade intercepted and freed the POW's, who then dealt with their guards in a similar harsh way to the manner
in which they had been treated during captivity. The men of the Brigade had been warned beforehand that they might encounter POW's and that they should give them nothing more than a drink of water, as anything in the way of food after their starved captivity would cause them harm. Aircraft were tasked nearby with evacuating these men to hospitals for recuperation from their ordeal. The Tanks then headed directly for Rangoon.
Rangoon: Forward elements reported that there was little sign of the enemy, and no resistance. 2 days later, after further reconnaissance, 255 drove straight into Rangoon and laagered In the Veterinary College awaiting relief. It seems that allied aircraft had noted" Japs gone" painted on the roofs of the city, and after checking, it seemed to be correct.
Relief came in the form of Paratroopers 2 days later.
In the week before 255 vacated back to Meikteila, Smudger Smith from Aberdeenshire, an original Territorial, was killed. He was sitting on the front fender of a rations truck which was involved in a traffic accident and was killed outright. He was buried in the grounds of the Vets College, although presumably his remains were repatriated later. 255 Pipe band played at his Burial, with full military honours.
General Slim later "Liberated Rangoon" from the sea, for the rolling cameras, but 255 were there first.
Meiktila again: 255 arrived as an army of occupation pending their next assignment and sent a company up into the Shan states in support of Infantry looking for stragglers of the Imperial Japanese army, via Kulaw and Taungye.
By this point in the war, the Atom bomb had seen its' first and second use in anger and VJ day had arrived. Nevertheless some isolated Japanese forces refused to believe they had been defeated, and it was necessary to parachute Japanese officers Into the Jungle to convince them to surrender. No-one was keen to be the last casualty of the war, especially after VJ day.
In the time between VJ day and leaving from Rangoon for home, 255 busied itself with repairs to vehicles, and sunbathing. During this time, 497 found himself running errands up to Kulaw and Taugye, usually with the beer ration, and met again with Dr Hussein. The Doctor had been the Medical officer for the state of Kulaw, and had left for Meiktila when the Japanese forces had started persecuting him, as they did with most educated people.
He had removed and buried the complete engine and gearbox from his remaining car so that it would not be
Commandeered. 255 was happy to help him unearth and reinstall it. On 3 weeks leave to Maymyo, 497 met again with an Infantry private called Forbes whom he had met on the steamer to India. Back then, he had been learning to play the trumpet, and now was playing in an official army band providing R&R for the troops on leave. Their drummer was embarking for home soon, and 497 was 'borrowed' for 3 months until it was time for the Gordons to head home.
In October '45, 255 left all its' equipment to Indian Army, and boarded busses for Rangoon. There they boarded the RMS Durban Castle bound for the Suez Canal and Home. At least on this marine journey home, the troops were allowed on deck during the night. Incredibly, 497 Hannah met Pvte Forbes on the boat home, and landed a job ironing Officer KD shirts for 6d (2.5p) a time. Bear in mind that Army pay was 14 shillings (70p) a week then.
Early November, the Gordons arrived at Southhampton, and were billeted outside Cambridge, in barracks recently vacated by the American Army Airforce at Royston. They found Linen sheets on the beds, and 2 stoves and all the mod cons for 1945. The spoils of War, they smiled. On their retum from 2 weeks leave, the stoves and sheets were gone, and standard army issue fitted. It had seemed too good to last.
After a few weeks getting demob fever, and searching out the best dancing establishments, rail warrants were issued to Edinburgh castle for out processing, and the issue of the dreaded demob suit.
Time for peace and home.
After arriving home with a ration book showing 6 months pay due, a great many chandeliers were swung on.
497 secured a job with the Co-op driving a milk float, then a Van, then moved to coal sampling with the National Coal Board, remaining there until retirement. Along the way he married a pretty girl called Betty Wardlaw from Harthill, and had 2 sons and a daughter. The writer is the youngest son, and I remember my father relating how some wag had stated that only 2 things of worth came from Harthill, ...whores and good football players.
On my father mentioning that his wife came from Harthill, the wag quickly asked "what position does she play?". Standard Coal Mining stuff.
Sadly my mother passed on in January 2002, but 497 still drives at 88 and frankly, I still wouldn't pick a fight with him. The Gordons were tough buggers.
If by this story, the bad times and the good of that period of history are better remembered, perhaps wars will be less likely to recur. War brings out the best and the worst in people and friendships forged in the crucible of combat are almost indestructible, save by the inevitable march of time.
It has been my honour to record these events, and if it jogs memories or reawakens old acquaintances, or simply marks events which have scarcely seen prominence then the effort has been worthwhile.
In closing many years later the writer was having trouble furthering his Technical education with the National Coal board.
497 Hannah looked at the grim letter from NCB Headquarters Greenpark, Edinburgh, and said "wee Sanny Robertson eh? I'll just make a little phone call". Soon after, the student engineer post was approved.
It seems that the NCB Head Training officer had driven all over Burma with 497:Hannah: and that 497 Hannah had reminded him that he had been a Barber in Civvy street until the Army had simply given him a chance... He was simply asking for the same chance for his son…. Friendships born of Combat.
I salute you all.
W Hannah (jnr) September 2003