Back to News

Captain John Riggs obituary

Capt John RiggsCaptain John Riggs, who has died aged 101, took part in Operation Thursday, the Second Chindit Expedition, in Burma in 1944. The 1st Battalion the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment (1 BHR), part of 14th Infantry Brigade, 70th Infantry Division, were stationed at Bangalore in India when they learnt that they were to be transferred to Burma.

The Battalion moved to an area south of Jhansi for six months’ rigorous training in jungle fighting. They were to become Chindits, as the force became known, long-range penetration troops whose objective was to support the American-Chinese advance by establishing fortified bases behind Japanese lines. From these strongholds, given the code names of cities, raiding columns would slog across some of the toughest terrain in the world to strike against the road, rail and river systems serving the Japanese army.

Operation Thursday began in March 1944. Riggs commanded the Recce Platoon of 16 Column numbering about 40 men, including Karens from the hill tribes on the Thai border, rifle sections, signallers, and mule leaders. More lightly armed than the rest of the Battalion, they could move further and faster.

Riggs’s column flew into “Aberdeen” stronghold on March 31. The mules were in makeshift bamboo stalls behind the pilots and crew. His men sat on their packs on the floor. They had orders to shoot the mules if they kicked away their stalls and threatened the safety of the aircraft. On landing, they bumped along the rough airstrip. Others were not so fortunate; in a bad landing, heavy earth-moving equipment could break loose and cause heavy casualties. The mules had to be coaxed out; they had lost their usual steadiness and for some minutes they staggered around as if drunk.

The Battalion set off on a 30-mile approach march towards Indaw, a major road and rail hub. Where the teak had been cut and abandoned there was dense bamboo, thorn and every kind of low-level scrub through which a path had to be cut. Progress was slow and, where possible, the platoon used elephant tracks to move more quickly.

Japanese trucks, loaded with soldiers, came looking for the platoon. Riggs was tempted to set up ambushes, but his orders were to reach Indaw undetected. On reaching the outlying villages they found many enemy fuel dumps. Information was passed back to the column’s rifle platoons, who destroyed them.

Close to Indaw, the railway line was blown up and two enemy troop trains were held up. A nearby station was bombed and a platoon from Riggs’s column had to drive off a strong enemy patrol. Mawlu was attacked and the position held for three days while preparations were made for the evacuation of the “White City” stronghold.

One member of Riggs’s platoon developed a high fever from malaria or scrub typhus, but Japanese troops were combing the area and any delay was dangerous. Riggs had a syringe and gave the man an intravenous injection of quinine. To his great relief, within 20 minutes the man was on his feet. Riggs said afterwards that he had never been so close to leaving one of his men behind.

After leading a patrol north of Indawgyi Lake in an attempt to make contact with American and Chinese forces, he developed an outsize abscess on his back and had to be evacuated. At the end of November 1944 he embarked in SS Almanzora in charge of a draft of 100 soldiers for the voyage from Bombay to Glasgow.

John Sydney Riggs, the son of a Master Mariner, was born at Ilford, Essex, on March 1 1920. Aged four, together with his mother and sister he sailed to China to join his father, who was working at Hankow Port. John returned to England to attend St Paul’s Cathedral School, before starting work with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. The outbreak of war, however, was close and he joined the Artists Rifles before being commissioned into the BHR.

Capt John Riggs and comradesHe was posted to the 1st Battalion and joined the unit in Palestine, where he commanded the Signal Platoon. After a period on the Greek island of Lemnos and a campaign against the Vichy French in Syria, in October 1941 he sailed to Tobruk with his Battalion to relieve elements of the hard-pressed garrison.

After the siege was lifted, Riggs rejoined 1 BHR on internal security duties in India. There was considerable civil unrest and they were tasked with guarding a long stretch of railway line which was threatened by Japanese forces on India’s eastern frontier. About that time, he learnt that his father had been imprisoned by the Japanese military police in Shanghai.

The Indian Army provided the transport, but the newly recruited Indian drivers had difficulty in controlling large lorries and sometimes these left the road and plunged into deep ravines, taking 20 or 30 soldiers to their deaths. Riggs realised a schoolboy dream by cultivating the Anglo-Indian train drivers and being allowed to ride in the cab of some of the great steam engines.

After his return from Burma, he was posted to the Infantry NCOs’ School at Warrington, which soon merged into the newly established School of Infantry, Warminster. In August 1946 he was demobilised. Riggs and his family spent 16 years in the Far East, initially in Singapore and subsequently at Yokohama in Japan, where he worked for Jardine Matheson.

After returning to England, he joined the Royal British Legion and rose to become chief accountant. He subsequently became vice-president of the Burma Star Association. In August 2015 he played a prominent part during the VJ-Day 70th Anniversary Commemoration on Horse Guards Parade. In 1946 John Riggs married Marjorie Neale, from whom he was separated and who died five years ago. Their two daughters and a son survive him.

Captain John Riggs, born March 1 1920, died December 8 2021

« Calling all Burma Star Association members...

Maurice Ramsay, officer who led stretcher-bearers and casualties on a perilous trek through the Burmese jungle - obituary »