You Lucky Lads! - Ken Keen's account of life with the 1st Btn Essex Regt/23rd Bde
I arrived at Carlisle station, along with 30 to 50 more, to cries of, “You lucky lads! Over here! Answer your names and climb aboard the trucks!” I thought, what a lovely reception welcome to the British Army.
After staying the night in camp, we then went by train to Stranraer - from there to Larne in Northern Ireland then, by ferry, to a camp named, Ballykinlar, under the Mountains of Mourne.
We were kitted out with uniforms, haircuts, had inoculations, etc., and that was the start of my career in the Wartime British Army.
Six weeks of square bashing, drilling, marching, rifle drill - running around at double-time. After 4-5 weeks, we were turning into soldiers.
When we left Belfast, we travelled back to Carlisle, to start 10 weeks’ training. More training: route marching, weapon training - getting us fitter every week.
On board, there were 8,000 troops. Myself and my mate didn’t have a berthing card - that made no difference. We were allocated to a mess table for meals, but for sleeping ….. well … that was anywhere we could; corridors, on deck - and, a few times, in a padded cell!
We hadn’t been at sea a day when sea sickness struck everyone. What a state! I managed to find a place on deck; my arms wrapped around the handrails, and never moved for a full day. Our time was taken up trying to find a place to sit during the day, because, at night, you were kept down below deck.
I remember one night, we were on deck getting our last glimpse of daylight and fresh air, when we saw about 12 German planes diving down to bomb us. Well … all hell broke loose: bombs dropping, guns firing - we were pushed down below decks and locked in. After what seemed a lifetime, it all stopped. A lull in the confusion, but not for long.
A submarine surfaced and escorted us into Gibraltar. After a month at sea, it was good to see something different from planes and whales. Gibraltar to me was like a slag bank at home! As we left Gibraltar, some American ships joined our convoy. Within 24 hours, they were at the bottom of the Med.
Everyday the Germans were bombing and machine gunning. By this time, we were getting quite used to it all. One day, out of the blue, in the distance we could see tiny dots on the horizon. It turned out to be Port Said in Egypt. Everyone cheered up, sang and laughed. Everyone had a great feeling of comradeship.
After docking, we were put onto a train and taken the full length of the canal - a sight best forgotten. The way people lived! We arrived at a place called, “Port Tewfit”, where we were under canvas for about 3 weeks. The next ship was the, “Empire Windrush”, which broke down after joining the convoy, so we were just left on our own in the Red Sea to make India on our own.
We docked in Bombay after a long, slow journey, but at least safe. We disembarked and marched through Bombay onto trucks, which took us to a holding camp called, Deolali. What really hit me as we left the troop ship was the heat coming off the roads and everything around. The pavement was covered in red, which, I found out later, was beetle nut juice, which the locals chewed and spat out. Horrible! We stayed there about a month, all the training and keeping fit.
At last, another move; this time to join the 17th Indian Division. We joined the 23rd Brigade Chindits. I was posted to the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment. I had previously been in the Border Regiment, so I had new mates - all Cockneys.
We really started intense training - going out into the jungle; living in there weeks at a time, learning to survive off what we could. From there, we boarded a troop train, which took us on a fortnight’s journey to the Bramaputra River and on to a ferry boat. From there, another week in a troop train to a place called Manipur. The Japanese were reported to be dug in around the rail head. Everyone was on alert. While we were being briefed, Admiral Lord Mountbatten arrived in a jeep! I was chosen, being one of the younger soldiers, to meet and shake hands. What a powerful, big man he was! “Hello - and how long have you been out here?” “About 3 months”, I said, gazing up at his chest. With that, he said, “Gather around, lads. You lads are going behind the Jap lines and we’ll hit them with everything we have.” With that, a wave of his hand and he climbed into his jeep and was gone.
Within a day, we loaded the pack mules up; filled our back pack ( a small, light weight - all weighed up to 70 lbs!) with 5 day rations, a bandalier of 50 rounds, loaded rifle, 2 hand grenades fastened to our belts, machete and a chargolle of water strapped to our side. We set off up a mountain of 8,000 ft, not knowing what was facing us in a matter of hours. We soon found out. The path up to the top was very narrow and very steep and it was becoming very hard to keep up - and keep up you had to, with Japanese all around us. Darkness descended very quickly - no twilight - you just slept where you dropped. It took us a day and a half to reach the village, which we later found out was inhabited by Naga (headhunters) and didn’t know what reception we were to expect. Every hut, or bashar, had skulls hanging from the eaves! - and inside was as black as night and full of smoke from a fire burning in the middle. Their food - rice - was stored in little sheds built on stilts. We found out later that the Japs had taken it off them. We seemed to be living on top of the world - and pretty cold until the sun came up. Every day we were sent out on patrol to find out where the Japs were and what they were doing.
On one patrol, the Japs were waiting for us and ambushed us. We were under crossfire, pinning us down. As we dived for cover, my hat fell off, so I ran back down the path after it and bullets were flying past me. I stopped behind a large tree trunk. I can still hear bullets thudding into it. I made a final dash to my mates. There were only 3 of us left. The rest had been killed. One was a medic. He had patched me up the day before. It seems like yesterday ….. things are etched in your memory.
Night time was the worst. The various sounds and the Japs calling, “Over here, Tommy!” Your heart thumps and you get a sinking feeling in your stomach. In fact, after so long, you are a bag of nerves. If anyone says they’re not scared, they’re telling lies. Every day we are getting deeper into Burma and behind the Japs’ lines. We were supplied by Dakota planes. What we did … we made a clearing in the jungle in the shape of a letter ‘L’ then lit fires on the longest length of the “L” and then they dropped parachutes with supplies, ammo, mail - all different coloured parachutes. The times the Japs gathered our supplies and the times we had to fight them off were numerous.
We had what we called ‘free drops’ - food for the mules - in large bales which were dropped with our parachutes, killing our own men! We buried them there - made a rough cross and took a reference on the map to be brought back after the war and buried in the war cemetery.
We had been in action about 3 months and the monsoons were about to hit us. We thought we’d HAD a rough time! What a difference! Up to the thighs in mud and water, sitting out on your own in a listening post, daring not to breathe or sneeze with rain sheeting down and shouts of, “Over here, Johnny!” Talk about a bag of nerves!
During the day, if it was fine and the sun came out, we would hang our things up to dry and also to kill the lice and fleas. By this time, we were in rags - hair and beard all one - all you could see were my eyes and a mouth. They called me, “Wingate”! How we kept going, I honestly don’t know. I think it was the fear of being wounded and the Japs catching you, if you got wounded. There was no chance of evacuating you. They give you 10 Rupees in silver, the way to pay the natives to look after you, or get you out safely. The fighting was getting worse and the Japs had some bad tricks, sending their wounded with their hands up. If anyone went to help, he would have a machine gun on his back. The others would rush over and machine gun you. If anyone was unlucky enough to be wounded, the Japs would bayonet them, hoping the screams would fetch our lads over.
I remember one village we went into …. the atrocities that had taken place one could never forget. Bodies - some without heads - and the stench which takes a long time to leave your nostrils.
We were on patrol one late afternoon, the Sergeant in charge - and six more - making our way along, when we decided to have a halt and a smoke (which, incidentally, calmed you down!). As we put our packs on, the Japs suddenly opened up with machine guns. We scattered and I got separated. Darkness fell quickly. I stayed where I was all night. By morning, I hadn’t a clue where I was or where to go. I just wandered around until I came across this small village. The Japs had been and gone, so I was pretty safe. I came across this Bashar with a load of parachutes in. I was letting the villagers have them in exchange for food. That’s where I saw them with curry and rice, mixing it up with their fingers and throwing it into their mouths!
I wandered around from village to village and finally met up with some lads from the Border Regiment, one or two I knew - plus one from my home town, Millom! He didn’t recognise me with my hair and beard and in the rags I was wearing. He gathered some food off the villagers and away they went. Two days later, I caught up with my mates and we dug in at the next village. I felt much better, not being on my own.
The conditions we were suffering were unbelievable; mud, rain, cold - lying down where we could to sleep. We were due a supply drop, but with the low clouds, they couldn’t. It was 6 days before they finally managed to drop. It was what we called a ‘luxury drop’ - tinned fruit, bread - K. rations: it worked - 1 fruit, piece of bread (about 3” thick green mouldy, but certainly worried it!). After about an hour it just went straight through the system. Good while it lasted, though.
We had some Gurkhas with us. Talk about immaculate soldiers and you always felt safe on guard at night with fingers on triggers all the time - and they smiled! Everything they did was no trouble - and, boy! - could they make a good cup of Char (Ha!Ha!)
We seemed to be meeting up with more Japs - bigger numbers. We eventually discovered they were getting rready to invade through Imphal and Kohima into India. Our job was to cut their lines of supplies and get away sharply to another part and repeat as much damage as possible.
When one stops and thinks how very lucky we were …. someone was watching over us, without a doubt. I was very, very lucky. Malaria, dysentry; you just took in your stride - nerves shattered - and every little noise or crack played havoc. Daily orders were, “No prisoners taken”, but there were plenty Japs taken - bowing and scraping to you.
The fighting around Kohima and Imphal was very bitter - practically hand-to-hand. It’s unbelievable what the human body and flesh can stand, but, at the back of your mind, that knowledge was there: you WOULD win - and who was going home. Home seemed to be that far away and you would talk to mum and dad in your thoughts, but you could not relax at all. In your mind ….. “I’m going home safe, and in one piece”.
One day it would strike you that things were getting a lot quieter, but you had still to be alert and, believe me, the devastation was mind-boggling and the stench of corpses - mostly Japs - phew!
As we gathered our gear and ourselves together and started to leave, a Scottish Regiment was moving in to carry on where we left. They stood and saluted us and piper played his bagpipes. We must have looked a right motley crew, but bloody proud.
The first job was, they stripped our rags off and put them into 40 gallon drums of hot water, absolutely marvellous! Next, was shearing our beards and hair off. When they got down to the razor - talk about hurt! - I thought I’d lost my face! I had just got dressed into lovely clean clothes when I collapsed. Next thing I remember, waking up in a Field Hospital with malaria. After about a week. I was taken, along with some others, by ambulance to an airstrip and flew out to a place called Comilla, where, once again, I was put in a Field Hospital to convalesce. It was there I used to climb up the mango trees, only to come down covered in ants. After being discharged, we boarded a train to take us back to our Regiments - which were now in Bangalore - taking about a week. We were convalescing and on special rations - and having plenty of rest. We needed a lot of getting up to anything like fitness. So we were packed off to Bombay on a month’s leave to enjoy ourselves. A lot of time was spent at a place called Kandy Beach, just a train ride out of Bombay. Lovely beach and swimming pools!
Leave over, we were moved again to Poona, as the “Special Soldiers”, we were disbanded, owing to the death of Wingate and General Lentaigne taking over. We reverted back to an Infantry Division.
The Burma fighting was going great guns. Our lads were going great guns towards Rangoon.
Meanwhile, we were back in training once again. This time, a frontal attack at Rangoon. When we heard that we had dropped a bomb in Japan, I can’t honestly express my thoughts and feelings - only I felt such huge relief, knowing that - in a few days - it would be all over. Things starting to get a little better. We even got a bottle of beer! Celebrations?
Churchill brought a scheme out that anyone with 3 years or more service abroad was entitled to a month’s leave at home. My name was drawn out first! What a feeling! Going home for Christmas, 1945! After about a week, I set off for Karachi airport. It was a massive camp, full of service men coming and going all night, shouting your flight number. Bad luck if you missed it! I made sure I didn’t miss mine! I travelled in the bomb bays of a liberator. We dropped at a place called Castle Benito, in Tunisia. Another day of swimming and football! We left Tunisia at daybreak. What a wonderful sight: looking over the desert, the pyramids - and trains belting along. I can see it as plain now as it was 60 years ago. I can even smell the oil fields! (Ha Ha!).Looking down, while flying over the Med, looking at the ships plying their way, was like looking at matchsticks in a bath. Flying over Italy and Switzerland - what a sight! There was one thing puzzling me - then it hit me - how green everything was after all that burnt brown and dust I’d seen everywhere abroad.
We landed at an RAF aerodrome in Bournemouth, where we were treated like heroes! A marvellous meal - and even a pint of beer in the Mess! We travelled by train to London, to Sloane Square. We were billeted in the posh houses!
Next day, I travelled home on leave. My brother, Ike, met me at the station. When I turned into our street, the neighbours had flags flying and ‘Welcome Home’ signs across the street. It knocked me back a bit.
I enjoyed my leave - seeing mum and dad and everyone else. It went that quick. I was back in Sloane Square before I knew it.
We sailed by troop ship “Strathaird” back to India, in much better conditions than the first time. I was in India for another 12 months, then posted to Oldham, at a Prisoner of War Camp in one of the old Cotton Mills, “Glen Mill”.
From there, I was discharged at York; fitted up with my ‘Civvies’ and 3 months’ leave. I didn’t take all my leave - I started work - back to my routine. A slice of my life taken away - but, at least I did come home. A lot of my mates didn’t. A lucky lad who still had time to make his mark.