Quartered Safe Out Here
George MacDonald Fraser
QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE A Recollection of the War in Burma with a new Epilogue: Fifty Years On
FOR JACK, ANDREW, HARRY, AND TOM,
SOME DAY, THE TALE OF A GRANDFATHER
You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out here, An’ you’re sent to penny fights an’ Aldershot it, But when it comes to slaughter You will do your work on water, An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.
RUDYARD KIPLING, Gunga Din
It is satisfying, and at the same time slightly eerie, to read in an official military history of an action in which you took part, even as a very minor and bewildered participant. A coloured picture of men and guns and violent movement comes between the eye and the printed page; smells return to the nostrils, of dusty heat and oil and cordite smoke, and you hear again the rattle of small arms and crash of explosions, the startled oaths and the yells of command. And if the comparison is a humbling one, it is worth making if only to show how dehumanised military history has to be.
By rights each official work should have a companion volume in which the lowliest actor gives his version (like Sydenham Poyntz for the Thirty Years’ War or Rifleman Harris in the Peninsula); it would at least give posterity a sense of perspective.
For example, on page 287 of The War Against Japan: volume IV (The Reconquest of Burma), it is briefly stated that “a second series of raids began … and—Regiment suffered 141 casualties and lost one of its supporting tanks …”
That tank burned for hours, and when night came down it attracted Japanese in numbers. We lay off in the darkness with our safety catches on and grenades to hand, watching and keeping desperately quiet. The Japs milled around in the firelight like small clockwork dolls, but our mixed group of British, Gurkhas, and Probyn’s Horse remained undetected, although how the enemy failed to overhear the fight that broke out between a Sikh and a man from Carlisle (someone alleged that a water chaggle had been stolen, and the night was briefly disturbed by oaths in Punjabi and a snarl of “Give ower, ye bearded booger!”) remains a mystery. It was a long night; perhaps memory makes it longer.
Or there is Appendix 20, an account of Deception Plan “Cloak”, whereby General Slim deceived the Japanese by a fake crossing of the Irrawaddy. He confused Nine Section, too; we dug in at no fewer than three different positions in as many hours, Grandarse lost his upper dentures on a sandbank, little Nixon disturbed a nest of black scorpions in the dark, we dug in hurriedly in a fourth position, and the general feeling was that the blame for the whole operation lay at the door of, first, Winston Churchill, secondly, the royal family, and thirdly (for some unimaginable reason), Vera Lynn. It should be understood that we did not know that “Cloak” had worked brilliantly; we were footsore, hungry, forbidden to light fires, and on hundred per cent stand-to – even although, as Grandarse, articulating with difficulty, pointed out, there wasn’t a Jap within miles.
It is not facetious to recall these undertones of war. With all military histories it is necessary to remember that war is not a matter of maps with red and blue arrows and oblongs, but of weary, thirsty men with sore feet and aching shoulders wondering where they are, and when the historian writes:
“17th Division closed in on Pyawbwe from all directions”
that this involved, inter alia, the advance of long green lines of bush-hatted men, ducking but not breaking stride as the low-angle shells burst among them, and Sergeant Hutton muttering: “Ah knew we’d git the shit – if we’d been lead platoon, or at back, we’d ha’ bin reet, but we ’ad to be in’t bloody middle! Keep spread oot!”, and a corporal with a bleeding furrow across his temple propped against a bank shouting: “Ga’n git ’em, marras!” and starting to sing “John Peel”, and little Nixon making his usual philosophic remark that we’d all git killed and he didn’t want to die Tojo’s way, and someone falling down a well and having to be pulled out, and it ended with a hectic charge to a wrecked railway line, and we caught them in the open on the other side, and I was kneeling, sodden and steaming, with little Nick beside me shooting and humming under his breath and remarking: “Ye’re firin’ low an’ left, Jock – that’s it … git that booger, he’s nobbut wounded!”
Eleven hundred Japanese died in that battle; the official history records the fact, but doesn’t tell you how.
I wrote the above, or something like it, as a book review twenty-five years ago, which was twenty years after it happened. It is ancient history now, and war, and attitudes to war, have changed so much that you may wonder if it is worth returning to, so late in the day. But I think it is those changes, really, that make it worth while. After all, if mankind is lucky, it may be that the end of the Burma campaign was the last great battle in the last great war; and even if it wasn’t, it may still be worth remembering from an ordinary foot-soldier’s point of view, for it is a story of an army the like of which had not been seen (in Churchill’s words) since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont – a huge foreign legion of what Attlee called “the scrapings of the barrel” from half the nations under the sun, fighting under one of the great captains in mountain, jungle, and dry plain, in hot sun and drenching monsoon, and inflicting on one of the great warrior races its most crushing defeat.
That is my reason for writing not a history, for that has been done better than I could do it, or even a coherent detailed narrative, for I haven’t got that kind of memory, but simply what I know and remember of the Burma war.
Looking back over sixty-odd years, life is like a piece of string with knots in it, the knots being those moments that live in the mind forever, and the intervals being hazy, half-recalled times when I have a fair idea of what was happening, in a general way, but cannot be sure of dates or places or even the exact order in which events took place. I suspect it is the same with most folk, although I am often astonished (and suspicious, being an old newspaperman) at the orderliness with which some can trace a continuous thread of recollection. In my case, there are coloured strips of film at each knot of memory, and in between many rather grainy sequences which can be made out only with difficulty, and in some cases the print is spoiled or even undeveloped.
To give an example: I have the most vivid recollection of my first encounter with an angry Japanese, and the immediately preceding and succeeding events – but I have only the vaguest idea of where and when that momentous encounter took place. I do not know what day General Slim visited us when we were holding Meiktila, or whether the lake shore on which he stood was the northern or southern one, but I see him clear, with that robber-baron face under the Gurkha hat, and his carbine slung, looking like a rather scruffy private with a general’s tabs – which of course is what he was. I don’t know from which point of the compass we attacked Pyawbwe, because it didn’t matter to me, but I know what happened there. I could not come within weeks of naming the day when our canoe foundered in a tributary of the Sittang, which was also the day we picked up the section’s first Jap prisoner, and Forster stole his watch. I don’t even know where I was on VJ Day – and if it seems remarkable that I am unaware of these things, I must emphasise that at private soldier level you frequently have no idea where you are, or precisely how you got there, let alone why.
Had I been an officer my memories would be very different. I discovered this a year or two later, as a subaltern in a Highland regiment in the Middle East: the whole chronology of that time is clear and connected, possibly because an officer’s concerns cannot be the selfish ones of a private soldier, who need not look beyond himself and his mates; an officer, even a subaltern, must at least know where he is and have a broader picture of what is happening. Well, more or less.
Certain matters have become clearer to me in the course of writing, because I have had recourse to written histories of the war. I had a rough idea, when we attacked the place I call the temple wood, and ran into rifle and machine gun fire which took out a third of the section in a matter of seconds, why we were doing it, but now I understand the overall plan of which that attack was a small part. I remember vividly the free-for-all battle when we finally got into the wood, but only now do I learn that during it we killed 136 Japanese. I understand at last the strategic implications of the monsoon’s breaking two weeks early, but my chief memory of the beginning of that monumental deluge is of a giant centipede emerging, all fifteen scaly inches of it, from the folds of a tent we were trying to erect. That was the time, the histories tell me, when thousands from the shattered Japanese divisions were trying to escape east from the Pegu Yomas across the Sittang, giving rise to the Battle of the Rangoon Road: that was Slim’s strategic problem; our tactical one was that the tent canvas was so rotten it fell apart, and we slept in the open in six inches of warmish water, with Grandarse beaming contentedly up at the downpour, remarking: “Aye, grand growin’ weather.”
A strange trait of the human memory – of mine, at any rate – is that it is no respecter of the great and important; the most utter trivia becomes as embedded in the mind as matters of life and death. It is natural enough that I should have an indelible image of Long John frowning at his bayonet which was bent almost double after he had pulled it out of a Japanese on the night when they got inside our position and all hell broke loose in the dark; or remember the sick feeling in my throat when, as the section scout, I found myself advancing alone, safety catch off and one up the spout, across a hundred yards of open ground to a silent screen of palm and thicket concealing a village where there might, or might not be, a Japanese position. There wasn’t, as it happened, but I remember every step, and the fact that I got no comfort at all from mentally reciting Browning’s “Prospice” as I walked on eggshells wishing to God I’d passed Lower Latin and got into university in 1943. But why should I remember just as plainly that a cigarette smoked during an ambush on the Sittang was a brand called Panama, or hear so clearly Bing Crosby singing “The Wedding Song of Reynaldo” on the company set in a basha on the Rangoon road, or be able to see the jungle sore on the wrist of a comrade as he rummaged in his housewife for a needle when I can’t even recall his face, or have near total recollection of Madame Dubarry’s name cropping up in the section’s conversation, and her imagined charms being compared (unfavourably) to those of Susanna Foster, the film star?
I mention these things to explain, not to excuse, the random nature of what follows – a young soldier’s recollections of one small part (and mine was a very small part, for my service did not compare in length or hardship to my comrades’) of one campaign in a war that is already fading into the shadows. Many officers have written about Burma, but not many private soldiers, I think; that is one reason for doing it. Another is to make some kind of memorial to Nixon and Grandarse and Hutton and Long John and Parker and Forster and Tich and Gale and the Duke, and all the rest of those matchless men whose grimy brown faces I can see, and whose Northern voices I can hear, as though it were yesterday, and not half a century on. I suppose they’d look ordinary enough to the world, but they still seem matchless to me, and I want to set down, before night, how they went to war, how they spoke and thought, how they were armed and dressed, how they fought and lived and died, and how they beat the living daylights out of Jap.
I have not used their real names (except for one officer’s nickname) because while some of the conversation quoted is word for word, most of it obviously is not, although it is entirely faithful in gist, subject and style. Also, some details might cause distress to relatives or friends of those who died; for this reason I have shifted one incident out of chronological order. The rest is as I remember it, and if I have erred in matters which were beyond my ken, and of which I have had to write at second hand, or my memory has played me false in details like, say, aircraft markings, weapon calibres, or location descriptions, I apologise. I have checked as best I can, and must record my thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel John Petty, M.B.E., M.C., formerly officer commanding B Company, 9th Battalion The Border Regiment, 17th Indian Division, for reading the manuscript and correcting me on a number of factual details.
There is a third reason for writing: to illustrate, if I can, the difference between “then” and “now”, and to assure a later generation that much modern wisdom, applied in retrospect to the Second World War, is not to be trusted. Attitudes to war and fighting have, as I said earlier, changed considerably, and what is thought now, and held to be universal truth, was not thought then, or true of that time. Myth, revisionist history, fashionable ideas and reactions, social change, and the cinema and television, have distorted a good deal over the past half-century. So I shall try to set it straight (or what seems straight to me, an eye-witness) in small and possibly unimportant matters of fact as well as in wider aspects.
Just to give three examples, the first trivial, the others rather more important:
I have read, in an essay by a respected military journalist, that the weapon known as the Piat (projector, infantry, anti-tank), while then in existence, was never used in Burma. Well, I carried the bloody thing, and fired it five times, with startling results.
Secondly, a couple of years ago I read a review of a book purporting to deal with “Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War”. The book was by an American scholar, and according to the review it concentrated on “the rationalisations and euphemisms people needed to deal with an unacceptable reality”. I quote the review in part:
In chapters such as Chickenshit: An Anatomy, High-mindedness, and Typecasting, he underlines the lasting damage the war inflicted on ‘intelligence, honesty, complexity, ambiguity and irony.’ The frustration and disgust of the soldiers who knew that, for the benefit of those at home, their experience was being “systematically sanitised, Norman Rockwellised, not to mention Disneyfied” is documented, as are the stupidity and sadism that were represented by the media as tactical brilliance and noble courage.
Now, I haven’t read the book, and cannot say whether its author or the reviewer served in, or were even adults at the time of the war. Nor do I know whether the book is largely based on American experience or whether, as the review implies, it applies equally to Britain. If it does, then I can say without hesitation that the fifth word of the quoted passage is too kind a description of the rest of the paragraph.
But to start with, anyone who writes of “unacceptable reality” simply does not know what he is talking about; the reality of the Second World War was acceptable and accepted, and no “rationalisations and euphemisms” were required. They may well be required by a modern writer looking back; he may not understand that the rhetoric and propaganda of newspapers, broadcasts, and newsreels were recognised as such, at the time, both in the front line and at home. Of course media and government felt obliged to present the war in as favourable terms as possible, but that was understood, and nobody was fooled, and no softening was “needed” by the public in the condescending sense that the review suggests. The British people were not stupid; they had been to war before, and knew all about its realities at first hand.
It is difficult for later generations to understand this; they have a tendency to envisage themselves in the 1940s, and imagine their own reactions, and make the fatal mistake of thinking that the outlook was the same then. They cannot see that they have been conditioned by the past forty years into a new philosophic tradition, requiring new explanations; they fail to realise that there is a veil between them and the 1940s. They want to see the last war in their terms; they want it to conform to their notions. Well, it won’t.
To continue. Whatever damage the war inflicted on intelligence, honesty, etc., cannot be measured, let alone proved, even by a modern academic. I doubt if it had any special effect on anyone’s intelligence or honesty; how you can inflict damage on complexity, ambiguity, and irony, is not clear to me or, I suggest, to anyone who prefers plain English to jargon. Obviously the war influenced people’s thinking permanently, but to call such shaping of the mind “lasting damage” is fatuous. One might as well say that forty years of comparative peace have inflicted “lasting damage” on modern intelligence, and adduce modern theories about the 1940s as proof.
But the last sentence of the quoted paragraph is the real beauty. I have a fairly wide acquaintance among my generation, embracing most of the British campaigns of the war, and I have yet to meet anyone who felt “frustration and disgust” about the way his experience was presented to the public. To speak of sanitisation, Norman Rockwell, and Disney in this context is to employ cheap emotional cliché; it betrays the kind of blinkered mind which cannot appreciate that a Norman Rockwell idealisation (since his name has been dragged in) is not necessarily false for being an ideal, or for failing to satisfy a revisionist’s misconception of the truth. If you want to believe that soldiers felt “frustration and disgust” you will no doubt find some to agree with you, if you try hard enough, but my own experience suggests that, in Britain at least, they would be a small minority. As to stupidity and sadism: yes, this soldier saw plenty of one and a little of the other, but never knew them to be represented as tactical brilliance or noble courage. No doubt convenient examples could be provided, but it would be extremely unwise to draw a general conclusion from them.
The review goes on to say that “what, in time of war, was seen as necessary to uphold the morale of soldier and civilian alike has persisted for almost fifty years as a method of determining what should be accepted as reality”. So far as that has a meaning, it appears to be that misrepresentation of war was necessary at the time, and has continued until now, when presumably some omniscient revisionist has seen through the sham. Well, such a conclusion is false, and insulting. It fails to see that morale, far from being inspired by policy, comes from within, and is nourished by friends, family, and example. Government and media may reflect that – as Churchill did – but they cannot create it. Perhaps no one can understand that who was not alive and aware in Britain during the war, or experienced the Blitz, or was torpedoed, or confronted death and mortal peril at point-blank.
There is, for some reason which I don’t understand, a bitter desire in some to undermine what they call the “myths” of the Second World War. Most of the myths are true, but they don’t want to believe that. It may be a natural reaction to having the war rammed down their throats by my generation; it may have its roots in subconscious envy; it may even spring from a reluctance to recognise that today’s safety and comfort were bought fifty years ago by means which today’s intelligentsia find unacceptable, and from which they wish to distance themselves. I cannot say – but I do know that the review I have quoted is typical in presenting a view which is false. It is also dangerous because it may be taken as true by the uninformed or thoughtless, since it fits fashionable prejudice. And that is how history is distorted. You cannot, you must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it. You may not like what you see, but do not on that account fall into the error of trying to adjust it to suit your own vision of what it ought to have been.
Thirdly, it is now widely held (or at least it has been widely stated) that the dropping of atomic bombs was unnecessary because the Japanese were ready to give in. I shall have something to say of that bombing later – and not entirely, perhaps, what you might think – but for the moment I shall say only that I wish those who hold that view had been present to explain the position to the little bastard who came howling out of a thicket near the Sittang, full of spite and fury, in that first week of August. He was half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.
Finally, if any young soldiers of today should chance to read this book, they may understand that while the face of war may alter, some things have not changed since Joshua stood before Jericho and Xenophon marched to the sea. May they come safe to bedtime, and all well.
The first time I smelt Jap was in a deep dry-river bed in the Dry Belt, somewhere near Meiktila. I can no more describe the smell than I could describe a colour, but it was heavy and pungent and compounded of stale cooked rice and sweat and human waste and … Jap. Quite unlike the clean acrid wood-smoke of an Indian village or the rather exotic and faintly decayed odour of the bashas in which the Burmese lived – and certainly nothing like the cooking smells of the Baluch hillmen and Gurkhas of our brigade, or our own British aromas. It was outside my experience of Oriental stenches – so how did I know it was Jap? Because we were deep inside enemy-held territory, and who else would have dug the three bunkers facing me in the high bank, as I stood, feeling extremely lonely, with a gallon tin of fruit balanced precariously on one shoulder and my rifle at the trail in my other hand?
I had never seen a live Japanese at this time. Dead ones beyond counting, corpses sprawled by the roadside, among the huts and bashas of abandoned villages, in slit-trenches and fox-holes, all the way, it seemed, from Imphal south to the Irrawaddy. They were what was left of the great army that had been set to invade India the previous year, the climax of that apparently irresistible tide that had swept across China, Malaya, and the Pacific Islands; it broke on the twin rocks of Imphal and Kohima, where Fourteenth Army had stopped it and driven it back from the gates of India. (I imagine that every teenager today has heard of Stalingrad and Alamein and D-Day, but I wonder how many know the name of Imphal, that “Flower on Lofty Heights” where Japan suffered the greatest catastrophe in its military history? There’s no reason why they should; it was a long way away.) While I was still a recruit, training in Britain, this battalion had fought in that terrible battle of the boxes, and their talk was still of Kennedy Peak and Tiddim and the Silchar track, and “duffys” – the curious name for what the Americans now call fire-fights – in the jungle and on the khuds of Assam. There they had fought Jap literally to a standstill, and now we were on the road south, with Burma to be retaken. We had said goodbye to the mules which had been the only possible vehicles in that fearful country; trucks had brought us to the Irrawady and beyond, courtesy of East African drivers whose one notion of convoy discipline had been to get to the front and stay there, screaming with laughter as they skidded round hairpins on mountain roads with cliff on one side and a sheer drop of hundreds of feet on the other. The driver would hunch over his wheel, giggling, while his mate hung out on the other side shrieking his slogan “Whoa! Bus! Go! Stop! Fakoff!” at defeated opponents. They were, incidentally, the finest drivers I have ever seen, enormous jungle-wallahs in greatcoats and vast ammunition boots, with tribal cuts on their beaming black faces; they wouldn’t last thirty seconds in a driving test, not even in Bangkok, but at motoring with two wheels in thin air they were impressive.
They put us where Slim wanted us to be, south of the river, in that strange land known as the Dry Belt. People think of Burma as one great jungle, but in its centre there are large tracts which are almost desert; stony, sun-baked plain dotted with jungly patches and paddy-fields and criss-crossed by nullahs and river beds which, outside the summer monsoon, are bone dry. This was where Slim wanted to catch Jap in the open, by pretending to make his main drive at Mandalay, to the east, while we, the 17th Division, crossed the river farther west, making for Meiktila, eighty miles below Mandalay, in Jap country. This had been explained to us by our divisional commander, a kindly, hook-nosed Glasgow graduate called Cowan and nicknamed “Punch”; we would take Meiktila with a fast thrust, hold it against the surrounding Japanese forces, and wait for 5th Division (tastefully known, from their red disc insignia, as the Flaming Arseholes) to fight through to our relief.
“We are the anvil,” Punch had said gently, “and they are the hammer.”
“An’ they won’t be the only fookin’ ’ammer,” little Nixon had observed. “Bloody great Jap Imperial Guardsmen – aye, White Tigers, runnin’ all ower the shop, shoutin’ ‘Banzai!’ Aye, weel, we’ll all get killed.”
So much for the broad picture. At one point it narrowed down to our platoon, making a sweep across a huge, dusty plain, looking for Japanese positions; it was not expected that we would find any. We were in extended line, twenty yards apart, and I was on the extreme left flank; a deep nullah was opening up to my left, forcing me to close on the next man, who was little Nixon.
“Keep yer bloody distance, Jock!” bawled Sergeant Hutton, from his station right and rear, so I obediently scrambled down the side of the nullah, dropping the tin of fruit en route and missing my footing, so that I rolled the last fifteen feet and ended up winded in the nullah bottom.
It seemed to run fairly straight, and as long as it did I would be moving parallel with the rest of the platoon, now hidden from sight by the steep nullah side. So I shouldered the fruit tin again and set off along the nullah, with that awkward burden digging into my shoulder. It had been part of the big pack of compo rations which was the section’s food for the day and which had been divided among us at daybreak, to be eaten that night when we dug in. I had suggested opening it when we tiffined on the march, but Grandarse and Forster had said no, it would make a grand pudding at supper. So I’d cursed those Epicureans through the long hot afternoon, wondering if P. C. Wren had ever carried a gallon of fruit in the Foreign Legion, and muttering “Boots, boots, boots, boots”, to myself – not that it had been much of a march; ten or twelve miles, maybe, not enough to be foot-sore. But the tin was getting heavier by the minute as I trudged up the nullah, and I was going to have a hell of a job climbing the bank with it, as I would have to do in a minute, for the nullah was starting to tend left, carrying me away from the section’s line of march.
I stopped for a swig of chlorinated water from the canvas chaggle slung on my right shoulder, and took stock. There wasn’t a breath of air in the nullah – and not a sound, either. I scanned the twenty-foot red banks, looking for a place to scramble up. There wasn’t one; I would have to carry on, hoping to find one soon – either that or retrace my steps to the spot where I’d climbed down, which would leave me a long way behind the section, with night not far off. I couldn’t see the sun, but it had been dipping to the horizon when last seen, and I’d no wish to be traipsing about in the dark, getting shot by one side or the other. I heaved the tin to a less painful position, and started to walk quickly up the nullah – and it was just then that I saw the bunkers.
Usually a bunker is a large hole in the ground, roofed with timber or bamboo and covered with sandbags or hard-packed earth, with firing slits at ground level. These were different: three dark doorways about ten yards apart, cut in the side of the nullah, with manmade caves within. Jap bunkers, without a doubt … empty? Or not?
They were on the right side of the nullah, and on the plain above and beyond, the rest of the section would be moving forward – they might be a quarter of a mile away by now, or still level with where I stood; I couldn’t tell. Ideally, I should have climbed out and alerted them, but the banks were sheer. If I shouted, and brought them down into the nullah, and the bunkers were old and long abandoned, a lot of thanks I’d get – and if there were Japs in the bunkers, and I shouted … quite. Or I could pass quickly by on the other side, leaving them unexamined, and find some spot ahead to climb up and rejoin the lads … No, you can’t do that – but you’re a very keen young soldier if you don’t think about it.
I’ve never felt lonelier. Suddenly it was cold in the nullah, and the sun had sunk so low that there wasn’t a shadow. Five minutes earlier I had been sweating hot; now I was trickling ice. I stood hesitant, looking at those three long black slits in the bank, wondering what to do …
It was then I smelt Jap, rank and nasty. The question was, did it come from Jap in situ, or had he just left his stink behind him? Was he lurking within, wondering who was outside throwing tins of fruit about, or was he long gone to the south’ard? If he was present, was he as scared as I was? No, he couldn’t be.
The lunatic thought crossed my mind that the best way of finding out was to heave one of my two grenades into the nearest doorway and hit the deck, finger on trigger, waiting to see what emerged. And bloody clever I’d look when the section came running to the scene and found me bombing empty bunkers – I was a very young soldier then, you understand, and sensitive; I had no wish to be looked at askance by veterans of Oyster Box and K.P. (Three months later I’d have heaved in both grenades and the tin of fruit, and anything else handy; better to be laughed at than dead – and I wouldn’t have been laughed at.)
Anyway, hesitation was pointless. I couldn’t leave the bunkers uninvestigated; I couldn’t tell young Gale, our platoon commander, that I’d been too terrified; I couldn’t leave them unreported. It was that simple; anyway, they looked empty.
I lowered the fruit tin carefully to the ground, pushed the safety catch forward on my rifle, made sure my kukri was loose in its sheath, touched the hilt of the dirk in my small pack for luck, and moved delicately towards the nearest entrance, hugging the nullah side. I waited, listening; not a sound, just that hellish smell. I edged closer, and saw where most of it was coming from.
Just inside the doorway, where an unwary foot would tread on it, was a punji, which is a sharpened stake set in the ground point upwards, that point usually being smeared with something nice and rotten, guaranteed to purify the victim’s bloodstream. Some punjis are elaborate cantilevered affairs set to swing out of a darkened bunker and impale you; I had even heard of a crossbow variety, triggered by touching a taut cord. This was a conventional one, decorated with excrement by the look of it. But how old was it? (The things one does for a living: trying to determine the age of Jap crap, for eighteen rupees a week.)
Old or new, it didn’t suggest anyone in residence. I took a huge breath and slipped inside, dropping to one knee – and there wasn’t a thing to be seen but dim earth walls and a couple of Jap mess-tins, still half full of rice. I crouched there, wet with fear and relief, keeping my trembling finger well away from the trigger. I’d willingly have stayed there permanently, recovering, but it would be dark soon, so, carefully avoiding the punji (modern war is a pretty Stone Age business, when you think about it), I stepped outside again.
The second bunker looked much more promising. The earth on one side of the doorway had fallen in, and the dead fire in its entrance was days old. There seemed to be rubbish piled within, and the whole thing had an ancient, neglected look, so I passed it by and cautiously approached Number 3. Its doorway was so wide that I could see in to the back of the little cavern. I tossed a stone in, listening, and then nipped inside – empty, bare walls, and nothing but a crumpled Kooa packet in one corner.
I came out of that bunker feeling pretty heroic, and was retrieving my fruit tin when it occurred to me that I ought to go into the second one, too, just to make a job of it. And I was moving towards it when I heard a faint, distant whistle from over the top of the bank – little Nixon, for certain, wondering where his wandering boy had got to. I ran up the nullah, and found a crack in its side only about twenty yards farther on. I scrambled up, heaving the tin ahead of me, clawing my way over the lip to find Nick standing about ten yards off, and Sergeant Hutton hastening towards me with blood in his eye.
“Where the hell ’ave you been?” he blared. “Wanderin’ aboot like a bloody lost soul, what d’ye think yer on?”
“There were bunkers,” I began, but before I could get out another word Nick had shouted “Doon, Jock!” and whipped up his rifle.
How I managed it I have no idea, but I know my feet left the ground and I hit the deck facing back the way I had come. Whatever Nick had seen was in that direction, and I wanted to get a good look at it – I suppose it was instinct and training combined, for I was scrabbling my rifle forward as I fell and turned together. And I can see him now, and he doesn’t improve with age.
Five yards away, not far from where the bunkers must have been, a Jap was looking towards us. Half his naked torso was visible over the lip of the bank – how the hell he had climbed up there, God knows – and he was in the act of raising a large dark object, about a foot across, holding it above his head. I had a glimpse of a contorted yellow face before Nick’s rifle cracked behind me, three quick shots, and I’d got off one of my own when there was a deafening explosion and I was blinded by an enormous flash as the edge of the nullah dissolved in a cloud of dust and smoke. I rolled away, deafened, and then debris came raining down – earth and stones and bits of Jap – and when I could see again there was a great yawning bite out of the lip of the nullah, and the smoke and dust was clearing above it.
“Git doon!” snapped Hutton, as I started to rise. Suddenly, as if by magic, the section were there behind me, on the deck or kneeling, every rifle covering the lip, and Hutton walked forward and looked into the nullah.
“Fook me,” he said. “Land mine. Fook me. Y’awreet, Jock?”
I said I was.
“Wheer th’ell did’e coom frae? The booger!”
I told him, no doubt incoherently, about the bunkers: that I’d checked two and been on the way to the third when Nick had whistled. “It looked empty,” I said.
“Well, it bloody well wasn’t, was it?” he shouted, and I realised he was not only angry, but shaken. “Duke, giddoon theer an’ ’ev a dekko! Rest o’ you, git back in extended line – move!”
Nick was recharging his magazine. I realised that I was trembling. “Land mine?” I said. “Did you hit it?”
“Nivver,” said he. “Ah hit him, though. Naw, he would have it wired. Suicide squad, waitin’ to blaw oop anyone that cam’ near ’im.” He grinned at me. “Might ha’ bin thee, Jock boy. Ye shoulda give us a shout, man.”
I explained why I hadn’t, and he shook his head. “Nivver ga in on yer own, son. That’s ’ow ye finish up dyin’ Tojo’s way. Ye wanna die yer own fookin’ way.”
“Git fell in, you two!” It was Hutton again. “Standin’ aboot natterin’ wid yer thumbs in yer bums an’ yer minds in neutral! Awreet, Duke? Ad-vance! Coom on, it’ll be bloody dark in a minute!”
That evening, when we had dug in and were sitting round the fire eating our Maconochie’s, Hutton, who had been talking apart with the Duke, called me over. He was jotting in his notebook.
“Three boonkers, reet?” he said. “What was in the two ye looked in?”
“Nothing, sarn’t. Well, there was a punji in one, and a couple of Jap mess tins. Nothing at all in t’other.”
“Nowt at a’?”
“No … well, nothing but a Kooa packet over in a corner. Empty.”
He didn’t glance up from his notes, but his glance flicked sideways for a second, and out of the tail of my eye I caught the Duke’s almost imperceptible nod. Hutton finished writing, and when he looked up I’ll swear there was relief in the battered face. It took me a moment to understand why.
“Awreet, Jock.” Then suddenly he was angry again. “Nivver – nivver go in a boonker by yersel!” He stabbed me in the chest. “Mallum? Git yer mucker to cover you, or git me! Ye’re not fookin’ Gary Cooper!” Irrelevantly, it seemed to me, he added: “Fookin’ Scotsmen!” He feinted a jab at my chin. “Reet, son, fall oot.”
By this time the gastronomes round the fire were clamouring for their dessert. Grandarse produced a can of condensed milk which he punctured with a pig-sticker bayonet, while Corporal Little set to work on my gallon tin with his jack-knife.
Grandarse, mess-tin in hand, smacked his lips. “By Christ, eh! Peaches an’ Nessles, w’at? Aye, that’ll joost aboot do!”
“Might be pears,” suggested the Duke.
“Or pineapple,” I said.
“Ah don’t give a fook w’at it is,” said Grandarse, Penrith’s answer to Lucullus. “Eh, tho’, mebbe it’s fruit salad!”
It wasn’t. It was carrots, in brine. Inevitably, since I’d been carrying the tin, they blamed me.
native houses, large huts
Box = a defensible position, containing anything from thousands of men to platoon boxes of 30 men or fewer
bus = finished
gullies, dry watercourses
A brand of Chinese cigarettes, presumably looted by the Japanese. We smoked captured supplies of them; they weren’t bad.
tinned stewed steak, and very good
Back in Blighty, or even out of the line, a soldier’s first loyalty was to his regiment, and even the most cynical reluctant conscript was conscious of belonging to something special. If he came from the regimental area, the tie was all the stronger; he could call himself a Devon, an Argyll, a Gloucester, or a Middlesex, and take some pride in belonging to the Bloody Eleventh, the Thin Red Line, the Back-to-Backs, or the Diehards, as those regiments were nicknamed; he would probably know how they got them. And regimental pride would stay with him, as I’m sure it does still, even after amalgamation has played havoc with the old territorial system.
On active service, in my experience, the loyalty, or perhaps I should call it dependence, narrowed down to the infantry section of ten. Each battalion normally had four rifle companies (apart from headquarter and perhaps support companies for transport and 3-inch mortars); each company was split into three platoons, each commanded by a lieutenant and sergeant; and each platoon into three sections. In parade-ground theory, a section consisted of ten men (corporal, lance-corporal, Bren gunner, and seven riflemen, one of whom was the Bren gunner’s “number two”), but in practice the strength was more likely to be about eight; six was the operational minimum. But whatever its strength, the section was the essential unit, operating as a team; of course on platoon operations it acted in concert with the two other sections; and half-company, company, and battalion actions were common also; but whatever the size of the action it was the section that mattered to the private soldier. It was his military family; those seven or eight other men were his constant companions, waking, sleeping, standing guard, eating, digging, patrolling, marching, and fighting, and he got to know them better, perhaps, than anyone in his whole life except his wife, parents, and children. He counted on them, and they on him.
Within the section he would have his own immediate comrade, his “mucker”, known in some units as oppos or mates. Our own battalion was predominantly Cumbrian, and the men from the west coast called each other “marrow”, pronounced marra. I had three muckers in the course of the campaign, as a result of death and promotion. There was nothing official about the mucker arrangement, it just happened of necessity and mutual consent, and is certainly as old as war itself.
My first mucker was the section leader, Corporal Little – no doubt because at nineteen I was the youngest and least experienced man in the section. He was a Cumbrian by birth and race, which is to say he was the descendant of one of the hardest breeds of men in Britain, with warfare (if not soldiering) bred into him from the distant past. Like their enemies on the Scottish side of the frontier, the Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion, and murder; in war they were England’s vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn’t changed much in four centuries, either; the expertise in irregular warfare, to say nothing of the old reiver spirit of “nothing too hot or too heavy”, was strong in the battalion; their names (and nicknames) are to be found in the bills of warden courts four centuries ago, opposite charges of slaughter, spoil, ambush, and arson, and if you could have seen Nine Section, honestly, you wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. To all of which must be added the virtues of endurance, courage, and deep tribal loyalty; they were, as the chronicler said of their forefathers, “a martial kind of men”.
Little, known inevitably as “Tich” (just as I, the only Scot, was “Jock”), was typical – lean, dark, wiry, speaking seldom and then usually in the harsh derisive fashion of the Border. An outsider would have found him wary and decidedly bleak, and marked him as a dangerous customer, which he was; he was also remarkably kind and, when least expected, as gentle as a nurse.
Nixon was small, sprightly, and wicked, with a drooping gunfighter moustache and his own line of cheerful pessimism. His parrot-cry of “You’ll all get killed” was rendered in the wail of a mueddin at prayer, and one thing no one doubted: whoever got killed, it wouldn’t be Nick. That is not a criticism: no one took a greater share of rough work and risk; it was just that he had survivor written all over him. There are such men; they seem to have an Achilles-immunity. In Nick’s case it probably came of long and very active service, for he had been continuously at war for six years; he was cool and wise and never ruffled.
Grandarse, as his name implies, was on Falstaffian lines; I had slept on the lower bunk of a double-decked cot at Ranchi with his ponderous bulk creaking the lashings just overhead, and prayed nightly that they didn’t break. He was red and hearty and given to rich oaths; as a wrestler – and the wrestlers of Cumberland have no peers anywhere – he could hold his own against Sergeant Bellas of Gilsland, who had won Grasmere before the war. In civilian life Grandarse was a forester, and had spent his spare time rescuing climbers in the Lake mountains, “an’ nivver got a bloody penny for it, the boogers!”
Forster was a fly man who never had a cigarette to his name. “W’ee’s smeukin’?”, in an aggressive wheedle, was his watch-word, generally responded to with “Iveryone but thee”. He was crafty, foul-mouthed, ignorant, and dishonest; sufficient to say that in a battalion of expert scroungers, Forster was gifted beyond the ordinary; there are Burmese villages which must be wondering still where their pigs and chickens went to in ’45.
Steele was a Carlisle boy, tough and combative and noisy, but something of a mate of mine, even if he did use the word “Scotch” to me with occasional undue emphasis; once he added “bastard” to it (there was no race relations legislation in those happy days), and I responded with a fist; we battered each other furiously until Corporal Little, who was half our size, flew at us with a savagery that took us aback; he knocked me down and half-strangled Steele before dragging us face to face. “Noo shek ’ands! Shek ’ands! By Christ, ye will! Barmy boogers, ye’ll ’ev enoof fightin’ wid Jap, nivver mind each other! Ga on – shek ’ands!” Confronted by that raging lightweight, we shook hands, with a fairly ill grace, which was not lost on him. Then, being a skilled man manager, he put us on guard, together.
Stanley was large and fair and quiet, and had the unusual ability of sleeping on his feet, which was a genuine torment to him when he had to stand stag. He had been a cinema projectionist, and for sheer cold courage I never saw his like, as I shall tell later. He might have had a decoration, but his heroism manifested itself in a lonely place, by night, and no one in authority ever knew about it.
Wedge was a Midlander, and said “Ace, king, quine,” among other vocal peculiarities, like “waiter” for “water”. Being used to carry saggars in the Potteries, he would bear his big pack and other impedimenta on his head when necessary, leaving his hands free for other burdens. When we were cut off in Meiktila he developed an obsession about the 5th Division, who were to be the “hammer” to our “anvil”. “Wheer’s 5th Div, then?” was his stock question at the section O-group (the little conference which took place each evening, when the corporal passed on news and orders from the platoon commander). No one could tell him, and he would lapse into gloomy silence. He was deeply religious, and eager for education because, he told me, “Ah want to improve meself. Ah want a trade efter t’war, not carryin’ bloody saggars. A reet trade, Jock – Ah dunno what, though; Ah’ll ’ave to see.” Once, I remember, when we were on stag together, he told me how much he had enjoyed the pirate movie, The Black Swan, and I told him something of Morgan’s buccaneers and their exploits; from that moment he seemed to regard me as a latter-day Macaulay and pestered me for historical information, and since I am God’s own history bore, he got plenty, and his gratitude was touching. I doubt if it helped him to get a trade, but you never know.
The Duke, whose surname I have forgotten, if I ever knew it, was so called from his refined public school accent. He was tall and lethargic and swarthy as a gypsy, with a slow smile and a manner which grew more supercilious in proportion to the rank of whomever he was addressing; he was almost humble to Corporal Little, but I have heard him talk – with studied courtesy, mind you – to a brigadier as though the man were the veriest trash. He got away with it, too. The rumour ran that he was related to the royal family, but informed opinion was against this: Grandarse had seen him in the shower at Ranchi and had detected no sign of a birthmark.
Parker I have left to the last because he was easily the most interesting, a dapper, barrel-chested Cockney who was that rare bird, a professional soldier of fortune. He was in his forties, and had been in one uniform or another since boyhood, having just got into the tail of the First World War before serving as a mercenary in China in the ’twenties, in what capacity I never discovered, and thereafter in South America, the Spanish Civil War (from a pungent comment on the International Brigade I deduced that he had been with the Nationalists), and China again in the late ’thirties. He re-enlisted in 1939, came out at Dunkirk, and had been with Eighth Army before being posted east. He was a brisk and leathery old soldier, as brash and opinionated as only a Londoner can be, but only rarely did you see the unusual man behind the Cockney banter.
I first noticed him on the dusty long haul by troop-train across India, when the rest of us slept on the floor or the cramped wooden seats, while Parker improvised himself a hammock with his groundsheet and lengths of signal cable. But I didn’t speak to him until the end of a marathon game of nine-card brag in which I had amassed the astonishing sum of 800 rupees (about £60, which was money then). I’m no card-player, let alone a gambler, but the priles kept coming for once, and I was just wondering how to quit in the face of the chagrined opposition, which included various blue chins and hairy chests of Australian, American, and mixed origin, when Parker, who had been watching but not playing, leaned over, picked up my winnings, and stuck them inside his shirt.
“That’s yer lot, gents,” he said cheerfully. “E’s out.”
There were menacing growls, and a large individual with a face like Ayers Rock rose and demanded who said so.
“I bleedin’ do,” said Parker. “I’m ’is uncle, an’ you’ve ’ad a fair shot, so you can brag yer bollocks off all the way to Cal – by yerselves. E’s out, see?” To me he simply said: “Better let me look arter it.” Which he did, all the way to Ranchi, where he escorted me to the paymaster to see it deposited. I won’t say I didn’t watch him with some anxiety during the last days of the journey, but I never even thought of asking for my money: some people are fit to look after a small fortune east of Suez, and some aren’t.
One result of his mother hen behaviour was that I learned something of his background. He was an orphan, and the proceeds of twenty years’ free lancing had put his younger brother through medicine; this emerged when I offered him a cut of my winnings for his good offices as banker; he didn’t need it, he said, and out came the photographs of his kid brother in his M.B. gown, and in hospital groups; Parker’s pride was something to see. “E’ll go in the R.A.M.C. shortly, I ’spect; ’e’ll be an officer then. An’ arterwards, ’e can put up his brass plate an’ settle dahn, get married ’an ’ave kids, make me a real uncle. ’E’s done bloody well for a Millwall sparrow, ’as Arthur. Mind you, he allus was bright, top o’ the class, not like me; I lef’ school when I was nine an’ never looked back. Yerss, I’m prahd of ’im, orlright.” He must have realised that he was running on, for he grinned sheepishly and put the photos away, remarking jauntily that a medico in the family allus came ’andy, didn’t it, case you got a dose o’ clap.
I said my parents had wanted me to be a doctor, and he gave me a hard stare.
“You didn’t make it? Why not?”
“Not clever enough, I suppose. Didn’t get into university.”
“Too bloody lazy, more like. Idle little sod.”
“Well, I didn’t want to be a doctor! I wanted to get into the Army, try for a commission.”
“Did you, now? Stupid git. Well, ’ave you applied?”
“Yep. Selection board turned me down. I’ve been busted from lance-jack a couple of times, too.”
“Christ, some mothers don’t ’alf ’ave ’em! An educated sod like you – I seen you doin’ bleedin’ crosswords.” He cackled and shook his head. “Well, I shall just ’ave to kick you up the arse, young Jock, I can see that. Ne’ mind – with my permish you’ll get a commish!” He liked the sound of that, and it became a private slogan whenever the going got uncomfortable: if I was sodden through, or was marching on my chinstrap, as the saying was, or bone-tired after digging or standing to all night, and even when we went in under the guns at Pyawbwe, Parker’s raucous cry would be heard: “Bash on, Jock – wiv my permish you’ll get a commish!” It was as regular as Nick’s “You’ll all get killed!” and just about as encouraging.
That was the section, and if they sound like a typical cast for a Gainsborough war movie, and I am suspected of having used clichés of character, I cannot help it. Every word about them is as true as I can make it. War is like that, full of clichés, and of many incidents and speeches that you couldn’t get away with in fiction. Later I shall describe how a comrade of mine, on being shot in the leg, rolled on the ground shouting: “They got me! The dirty rats, they got me!” I would not use it in a screenplay – and I know what the director and actor would say if I did. But it happened, word for word, nature imitating art.
I have said that was the section, but obviously it changed. We took casualties, and new men came in, and some of them became casualties, and reorganisations took place, often in haste during an action – I suppose as many as twenty men, perhaps even more, served in the section in six months, but the nine I have described are the ones I remember best. Eventually I left the section, and found myself in the last stages of the war among unfamiliar faces. But up to Meiktila we were all together, and whatever I learned I learned from them.
Credit for the invention of the ten-man section belongs to that great military organiser, Genghiz Khan. The Romans, despite their decimal system, used the eight-man section, of which there were ten to a century (which consisted, perversely, of 80, not 100, men).
Cumberland wrestling, one of the most scientific forms of close combat, is thought to be of Viking origin, although many of its holds are to be seen on ancient friezes. Although little known outside Cumberland and Westmorland, it attained an international reputation early in the century when, under the patronage of Lord Lonsdale, a team of four Cumbrians met and defeated in Paris a quartet of champions from Europe, Turkey, the U.S.A., and Japan. There are annual world championships at light, middle, and heavyweight, but the ultimate ambition is to “win Grasmere”; that is, the prize at the summer sports held at Grasmere, Westmorland.
guard, sentry-go, usually at night
pottery cases carried piled on the head
three of a kind, e.g. three aces
Because I dislike books which bewilder me by taking for granted technical details which I don’t know, and also for the record, I shall say how we were dressed and armed. Burma was a barebones war; in many ways we were like soldiers of the last century in that our arms and equipment were of the simplest; it was so because it was largely a close-contact, hand-to-hand war in which, while tanks and aircraft and artillery played an important part, it was first and foremost an infantryman’s business, and actions tended to be on a small scale compared with the battles in Europe. By today’s standards we were sparsely equipped. Thank God.
The uniform was all dark green; even underpants, vests, and socks had gone into the big dye vat at Ranchi; watch-straps had to be green or khaki. You had two shirts, two pairs of trousers, puttees (a better protection than anklets against leeches and other crawlies), and boots – British-made, if you were lucky, rather than the clumsier Indian pattern; later we sometimes wore captured Jap jungle boots, with their thick crepe soles. A few – Parker, for one – dispensed with socks and filled their boots with tallow, claiming that it prevented blisters. It was also messy, and stank. I tried it – once.
Fourteenth Army’s distinguishing feature was the bush-hat, that magnificent Australian headgear with the rakish broad brim which shielded against rain and sun and was ideal for scooping water out of wells. In some ways it was a freak, in the steel-helmeted twentieth century, and it may have cost some lives under shell-fire, but we wouldn’t have swapped it. It looked good, it felt good; if you’d been able to boil water in it you wouldn’t have needed a hotel. Everyone carried a razor-blade tucked into the band, in case you were captured, in which event you might, presumably, cut your bonds, or decapitate your jailer by stages, or if the worst came to the worst and you were interrogated by Marshal Tojo in person, present a smart and soldierly appearance.
Equipment consisted of the standard web belt; cross-braces; pouches worn brassière fashion; small pack containing two mess-tins, pialla (enamelled mug), knife, fork, and spoon, housewife with needle and thread, water purification pills, mepacrin (to ward off malaria, which it didn’t), and any personal effects you felt like carrying, plus your rations; a pint water-bottle; entrenching tool, a steel mattock head with a detachable handle; and a log-line, a five-yard coil of thin rope. The last three items hung from the belt behind. A small trouser pocket contained a field dressing, but everyone scrounged a spare one because the gauze made a splendid sweat-rag-cum-neckerchief.
Weaponry was equally simple. There were a few tommy guns (but none of the hated Stens, the plumber’s nightmare) in the company, but the standard arm was the most beautiful firearm ever invented, the famous short Lee Enfield, either of the old pattern with the flat backsight and long sword bayonet, or the Mark IV with the pig-sticker, a nine-inch spike with no cutting edge. The old pattern, which I carried, was the great rifle of the First World War, which the Old Contemptibles used with such speed and skill that the enemy often believed they were facing automatic weapons, and one German general told of how his division had been “shot flat” by its disciplined fire. It held ten rounds with its magazine charged, and another up the spout, had an extreme range of close to a mile, and in capable hands was deadly accurate up to four hundred yards. I’m no Davy Crockett, but I could hit three falling plates (about ten inches square) out of five at two hundred, and I was graded only a first-class shot, not a marksman. The Lee Enfield, cased in wood from butt to muzzle, could stand up to any rough treatment, and it never jammed. “She’s your wife,” as the musketry instructors used to say. “Treat her right and she’ll give you full satisfaction.” And she did, thirty years old as she was; treating her right consisted of keeping her “clean, bright, and slightly oiled” with the pullthrough and oil bottle in her butt trap, and boiling her out after heavy firing. She’s a museum piece now, but I see her still on T.V. newsreels, in the hands of hairy, outlandish men like the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan and capable-looking gentry in North Africa, and I have a feeling that she will be loosing off her ten rounds rapid when the Kalashnikovs and Armalites are forgotten. That’s the old reactionary talking: no doubt Agincourt die-hards said the same of the long bow.
Nowadays the automatic rifle, and concentrated firepower, are the thing, spraying rounds all over the place – which must give rise to hideous supply problems, I imagine. We had it drummed into us that each round cost threepence; “one bullet, one Jap” was proverbial, if obviously impractical. I know I sound like a dinosaur, but I doubt if the standard of marksmanship is what it was – it can’t be, except at short range – and I wonder what happens if, say, a bridge has to be blown from a distance, because there’s no fuse, and someone has to hit a gun-cotton primer the size of a 10p piece at two hundred yards? (A Sapper lieutenant did that in Burma, with a Lee Enfield, one shot.) Possibly such problems don’t arise in modern high-tech war, or perhaps they just plaster the bloody thing with automatic fire, and hope. But I digress. We carried fifty round apiece, in a canvas bandolier draped over the buttocks.
Apart from the bayonet, the other essential sidearm was the kukri, the curved short sword of the Gurkha, slung behind the right hip. Mine cost me ten rupees, and some swine pinched it near Rangoon. The alternative was the dah, a long, broad-bladed machete.
In one pouch you carried two armed 36 grenades (Mills bombs), and these posed a problem. A grenade has a split pin holding in place an arm which, when the pin is withdrawn, releases a plunger which causes havoc with a fulminate of mercury detonator; depending on the internal fuse, you then have five or seven seconds to get rid of the thing, or good night, sweet prince. The cast iron casing is split into segments like a chocolate bar, and on explosion these segments (plus the base plug) will take care of anything within five yards, give or take. The question is, do you when given grenades to carry render them safe by hammering the split ends of the pin apart, or, bearing in mind that an angry Jap is not going to stand around while you un-hammer them, do you leave the pins so that they can slip out easily? The thought that Grandarse, who would make a bullock look security-conscious, is snoring beside you with his pins loose, is no inducement to untroubled sleep. In practice you just left them extractable with a sharp tug – and if Victor McLaglen, who is to be seen in old movies yanking the pins out with his teeth, ever tried it during his own army service, his incisors must still be in Mesopotamia. You do it with your finger or thumb.
There was another type of grenade, the plastic 77, which was a smoke bomb. It also sprayed phosphorus about, and was used in clearing bunkers.
In the other pouch were two Bren gun magazines, holding between 25 and 30 rounds, for the section’s light machine-gun; rifle and Bren ammunition being identical. The Bren gunner normally fired from a lying position with his number two alongside to change magazines if required and turn the “immediate action” plug when the gun jammed, as it could when overheated. It was a good gun, but needed intelligent handling, for when held firm it was accurate enough to punch a hole in a brick wall with a single magazine, and to get a good spread the gunner had to fan it about judiciously. It could also be fired from the hip, given a firm stance, for without one it would put you on your back.
Any other weapons were a matter of personal choice. Most of the section carried long-bladed flick-knives, bought in Indian bazaars; my own knife was something like a Commando dirk, worn with the butt protruding from the small pack, behind the right shoulder. The only other personal items were the rubberised groundsheet, folded inside the top of the small pack (later we were issued with waterproof monsoon capes), a blanket, and a canvas water chaggle, carried only if you were marching some distance – and only those who have been really dry know that there is no drink like chaggle water, brackish, chlorinated, with a fine earthy silt at the bottom, pure Gunga Din juice. We hated it and would have sold our souls for it. And I should mention the pale green masks, with eye-slits à la Dick Turpin, worn only if you were travelling by truck through dusty country; they were not for concealment. Camouflage paint was unknown, nor did we ever black up, presumably because sun and dirt made it unnecessary.
We were not bearded; that was a Chindit fashion. I grew a beard at the end of the campaign, when I was away from the battalion, but that was sheer laziness (and swank), and I got rid of it after a few weeks.
So there we were, nine or ten men with a thousand rounds of .303 and twenty grenades among us, and if my list has been a long one it still describes one of the most lightly armed and least encumbered foot soldiers since the introduction of firearms in war. It was gear designed for fast, easy movement by the lightest of light infantry – and I wonder why it has gone out of fashion.
The question is prompted by what I see on television of the Army today. To my eye the loose camouflage blouse is ugly, clumsy, and ill-fitting compared to our tight shirt and trousers; it might have been designed to catch on snags and hinder its wearer, and as if that wasn’t enough, the poor infantryman is festooned with more kit than would start a Q.M. store. I’m sure it’s all necessary; I just can’t think what for. I don’t like the helmet, and suspect it cramps head movement. Very well, I’m old-fashioned and ignorant, but I hold that a streamlined soldier is better off than one who looks as though he has been loosely tied in the middle, and I’d hate to try to crawl through a hedge or swim a river in that lot. Perhaps if those who design the Army’s equipment had to do either of those things, they’d come up with something better.
I suppose our war was different. A military historian has written that Fourteenth Army was stripped to the belt, and certainly it took makeshift and improvisation for granted, and relied, when it had to, on what it could carry and what was dropped to it from the air. While you were with your trucks, you were part of a mechanised force, transport, tanks, artillery and all; there was a company cookhouse (dispensing bully stew and boiled eggs, mostly) and a regular water truck, and an M.O. and padre, the regimental police and familiar Army organisation, and perhaps even a Church of Scotland or Salvation Army mobile canteen – I can see it now, a jungle clearing and two smiling douce old ladies from Fife, with their battered tea-urn and tray of currant scones. “Mai guidness, Ennie, we’re running out of sangwidges! Did I not say we needed anither tin of spem? Dearie me! More tea, boys?” And afterwards they would rattle off in their truck (“Furst gear, Ennie – and don’t rev the motor, woman! Oh, mai, take a hemmer to it! Bay-bay, boys!”) beaming and waving and adjusting their hair-pins, with Jap just up the road. There are heroines; I’ve seen them.
That was with the battalion, but there was no doubt that those long desperate months in the khuds and jungle (before my time) had bred in Nine Section an aptitude for something closer to guerrilla warfare. When the trucks had been left behind, and the battalion had faded into the distance, things were different: the long patrol, the independent operation at platoon or section level, the scout to an outlying village or just to a map reference, the lying-up perhaps in a ruined temple at what seemed the back of beyond, the feeling of being part of a reiver foray – the section seemed somehow easier, if not happier, at that kind of work; you felt that if the Army had vanished, and they had been left alone in that wild country halfway to China, they would have damned the government, had a smoke, and carried on regardless, picking up this and that on their way back to India.
I must emphasise that the platoon, much less the section, didn’t operate independently very often, and only in the later stage of the campaign when the nature of the war had changed from a pursuit in divisional strength to a more confused and piecemeal operation whose object was the final demolition of the beaten Japanese armies. By then they were scattered and disorganised, often into quite small parties, so it was no longer a question of a general advance by Fourteenth Army with set-piece battles, but of road-blocks and ambushes and patrolling on a smaller scale. Those were the conditions in which the section might find itself briefly on its own, and the occasions (mercifully few) which are large in my memory are those on which, having attained the dizzy height of lance-corporal, I had nervous charge of seven or eight old sweats watching with interest to see what the young idiot would do next. To me, each decision was momentous, whether it was to kip down in a village for the night, or turn for home, or to ford a milk-white river with snake-like shapes writhing in its depths, or to allow the section to accept rice-cakes from an evil-looking headman who was so greasily friendly I was convinced he was a Jap collaborator – he wasn’t, as it turned out, nor did his rice-cakes contain ground-glass. Small stuff, I know, but it seemed very big stuff then.
I might have found decisions easier if the others hadn’t kept reminding me, with gloating obscenity, that I wasn’t old enough to vote at the forthcoming General Election. It was a reminder that I had not been trained for authority in eccentric warfare. The young soldiers’ battalion had given excellent military instruction, but no guidance on what to do if, on a long patrol, we found a group of obvious Indians in their underwear holed up in a chaung (they were “Jifs” – deserters to the Japanese “Indian National Army”); or if the section lunatic decided to shoot a vulture in open paddy, thereby alerting any Japs who might be within earshot; or how to cope with a seasoned veteran who, in a lonely basha at night, swore that there were Japanese outside, hundreds of them but only eighteen inches tall, and led by his Member of Parliament, Sir Walter Womersley, Minister of Pensions. He was the only case (the veteran, not Womersley) that I ever encountered of what is now called, I believe, post-battle trauma; I’m sure it would need psychiatric reports and counselling by social workers nowadays, but the section simply advised him to take his kukri to them – which he did, cleaving the air and crying: “Pensions, you old bastard!” before going back to sleep. He was entirely normal for the rest of the campaign.
What I had been trained for was to be an obedient cog in the great highly-disciplined machine that was launched into Europe on D-Day. That would at least have been in civilised countryside, among familiar faces and recognisable environment, close to home and the main war effort, in a campaign whose essentials had been foreseen by my instructors. The perils and discomforts would have been no less, probably, but they would not have been unexpected. It is disconcerting to find yourself soldiering in an exotic Oriental country which is medieval in outlook, against a barbarian enemy given to burying prisoners up to the neck or hanging them by the heels for bayonet practice, among a friendly population who would rather turn dacoit than not, where you could get your dinner off a tree, be eaten alive by mosquitos and leeches, buy hand-made cheroots from the most beautiful girls in the world (with granny watching, puffing her bidi and rolling the tobacco leaf on her scrawny thigh), wake in the morning to find your carelessly neglected mess-tin occupied by a spider the size of a soup-plate, watch your skin go white and puffy in ceaseless rain the like of which no Westerner can imagine for sheer noise and volume, gape in wonder at huge gilded pagodas silent in the wilderness, and find yourself taken aback at the sight of a domestic water-tap, because you haven’t seen such a thing for months.
It seemed a terribly old-fashioned kind of war, far closer to the campaign my great-uncle fought when he went with Roberts to Kandahar (he’s buried somewhere in Afghanistan; I wore his ring in Burma) than to what was happening in Europe. Compared to that, or the electronic campaigns of today, it looks downright primitive. (Not that the electronic campaigns won’t be primitive enough, when the barrage lifts and the infantry start walking.)
If it seemed somehow to be a long way back in time, it was also a very long way from home, and had taken a lot of hot, weary travelling to get to. It was a far corner of the world, and even although a letter written in Carlisle on Sunday could be in your hands in a chaung by the Sittang on Thursday, when you opened the blue air-mail form and saw the well-remembered writing, you had the feeling that it came from another planet. That’s not a complaint, or an attempt to suggest special hardship; our campaign, or at least what I saw of it (Imphal and the northern khuds being something else) was probably no harder than any other. But you did feel the isolation, the sense of back of beyond. Perhaps that came, in part, from being called “the Forgotten Army” – a colourful newspaper phrase which we bandied about with derision; we were not forgotten by those who mattered, our families and our county. But we knew only too well that we were a distant side-show, that our war was small in the public mind beside the great events of France and Germany.
Oh, God, I’ll never forget the morning when we were sent out to lay ambushes, which entailed first an attack on a village believed to be Jap-held. We were lined up for a company advance, and were waiting in the sunlight, dumping our small packs and fixing bayonets, and Hutton and Long John were moving among us reminding us quietly to see that our magazines were charged and that everyone was right and ready, and Nixon was no doubt observing that we’d all get killed, and someone, I know, was muttering the old nonsense “Sister Anna will carry the banner, Sister Kate will carry the plate, Sister Maria right marker, Salvation Army, by the left – charge!” when a solitary Spitfire came roaring out of nowhere and Victory-rolled above us. We didn’t get it; on the rare occasions when we had air support the Victory roll came after the fight, not before. While we were wondering, an officer – he must have been a new arrival, and a right clown – ran out in front of the company and shouted, with enthusiasm: “Men! The war in Europe is over!”
There was a long silence, while we digested this, and looked through the heat haze to the village where Jap might be waiting, and I’m not sure that the officer wasn’t waving his hat and shouting hip, hooray. The silence continued, and then someone laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of “Git the boogers oot ’ere!” and “Ev ye told Tojo, like?” and “Hey, son, is it awreet if we a’ gan yam?” Well, he must have been new, and yet to get his priorities right, but it was an interesting pointer.
But if we resented, and took perverse pleasure in moaning (as only Cumbrians can) about our relative unimportance, there was a hidden satisfaction in it, too. Set a man apart and he will start to feel special. We did; we knew we were different, and that there were no soldiers quite like us anywhere. Partly it sprang from the nature of our war. How can I put it? We were freer, and our own masters in a way which is commonly denied to infantry; we were a long way from the world of battle-dress serge and tin hats and the huge mechanised war juggernauts and the waves of bombers and artillery. When Slim stood under the trees at Meiktila and told us: “Rangoon is where the big boats sail from”, the idea that we might one day get on one of those boats and sail halfway round the world to home might seem unreal, but it was a reminder that we were unique (and I don’t give a dam who knows it). We were Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition. I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there’.”
Mind you, as Grandarse remarked, we’d have to get out of the bloody place first.
There were six brigades of Special Force (Chindits) in Fourteenth Army, operating behind enemy lines in 1943–4, under the celebrated Orde Wingate. They took heavy casualties, and by the last year of the war few specialist units of this kind were being employed: there was certainly a strong feeling, said to be shared by Slim himself, that well-trained infantry could do anything that so-called elite or special troops could do, and that it was a waste of time and manpower to train units for particular tasks.
It was said of the Chindits at the time that, whatever the strategic value of their operations, they had performed a valuable service by proving that the Japanese were not invincible. With all respect to Special Force, whose contribution was second to none in Burma, this is not true. So far as the Japanese did have a reputation as military supermen, especially in jungle, this was exploded in the Imphal-Kohima campaign where they suffered the worst defeat in Japan’s history.
I am in no position to say how the Japanese were viewed before that decisive battle, but I do know that after it Fourteenth Army had no illusions about Japanese superiority, either en masse or as individuals; their heroism was acknowledged, but no one regarded them as better or more skilful soldiers.
According to my regimental magazine, the phrase “Forgotten Army” may have originated in an article by Stuart Emery of the News Chronicle who visited Fourteenth Army as a war correspondent in 1943; indeed, he seems to have applied the term ‘forgotten men’ to the very battalion of which I am writing, for although he could not identify it by name, for security reasons, he did give its nickname: the “White Gurkhas”. He, in turn, may have been inspired by the song “My Forgotten Man”, sung by Joan Blondell in the film Gold Diggers of 1933, which refers to American ex-servicemen of the Great War.
“Gan yam” is Carlisle dialect for “Go home”; elsewhere in Cumberland it is “Ga yem”.
“Aye-aye, Jock lad, w’at fettle?”
“Not bad, sergeant, thank you.”
“Champion! They tell us yer a good cross-coontry rooner?”
“Oh … well, I’ve done a bit …”
“Girraway! Ah seen ye winnin’ at Ranchi – travellin’ like a bloody trail ’oond w’en the whistles gan on. ’Ere, ’ev a fag.”
“Ta very much, sarn’t. M-mm, Senior Service …”
“Sarn’t’s mess issue, lad. Tek anoother fer after. Aye, ye can roon … woon a few prizes in Blighty, did ye?”
“Well, now and then … seven and six in savings certificates, that sort of thing …”
“Ah’ll bet yer the fastest man in’t battalion, ower a mile or two. Aye, in the brigade, likely – mebbe the division –”
“Oh, I dunno about that. There must be some good runners –”
“Give ower, Jock! A fit yoong feller like you? Honnist, noo – wadn’t ye back yersel agin anybuddy in 17th Indian? Well aye, ye wad! Ootroon the bloody lot on them, eh?”
“Well, I’d be ready to have a go …”
“Good for you, son. An’ yer a furst-class shot an’ a’, aren’t ye? Good … yer joost the man tae be sniper-scout for the section.”
“Eh? Sniper-scout? What’s that?”
“Weel, ye knaw w’at a scout does. W’en the section cooms till a village, the scout ga’s in foorst, t’see if Jap’s theer.”
“To … er, draw their fire?”
“Use yer loaf, man, Jap’s nut that bloody stupid! Usually, ’e let’s the scout ga through, or waits till ’e’s reet inside the position an’ then lays ’im oot, quiet-like. So the scout ’es tae keep ’is wits aboot ’im, sista, an’ as soon as ’e spots Jap, ’e fires a warnin’ shot … an’ boogers off. So ’e’d better be a good rooner, ’edn’t ’e?”
“Does it matter? I mean, if he’s surrounded by bleeding Japs, he might as well be on crutches –”
“Doan’t talk daft! If ’e’s nippy on ’is feet ’e can git oot, easy! Didn’t ye play Roogby at that posh school o’ yours?”
“Yes, but the opposition wasn’t armed. Oh, well. Here – you said sniper-scout. Where does the sniping come in?”
“Aye, weel, that’s w’en we’re pullin’ oot of a position, nut ga’in’ in. Sniper-scout stays be’ind, ’idden in a tree or booshes or summat, an’ waits till Jap cooms up …”
“And then snipes one of them?”
“Aye, but nut joost anybuddy. ’E waits for a good target – an officer, or mebbe one o’ the top brass, if ’e’s loocky –”
“Bloody lucky, yes.”
“… an’ then ’e nails ’im –”
“– and boogers … I beg your pardon … buggers off.”
“That’s reet, son! ’E gits oot an’ ga’s like the clappers –”
“Being a good long-distance runner. I see. Flawless logic. Well, it must be a great life, as long as it lasts –”
“Well, it’s a job for a slippy yoong feller, nut owd fat boogers like Grandarse, or ’alf-fit sods like Nick an’ Forster. Ah’m glad ye volunteered, Jock. ’Ere, ’ev anoother fag.”
“Thanks, sarn’t, but I wouldn’t want to spoil my wind. By the way, does a sniper-scout get extra pay? You know, danger money?”
“Extra peh! Danger mooney! Ye’ve been pickin’ oop sivven an’ six at ivvery cross-coontry in Blighty, an’ ye’re wantin’ mair? Ye greedy lal git! It’s reet enoof w’at they say aboot you Scotchies, ye’re a’ways on the scroonge …”
The battle of Meiktila was a hard and bloody one, the enemy garrison having to be killed almost to a man. Even at Meiktila the prisoners taken were wounded … never out here have hundreds of thousands surrendered … as the Germans have done in the European campaign.
Slim was the finest general the Second World War produced.
LORD LOUIS MOUNTBATTEN,
Supreme Commander, South-east Asia
Slim was the chap … he made do with the scrapings of the barrel.
The incident of the three bunkers and my tin of fruit/carrots is engraved on my memory because it was my baptism of fire and, incidentally, the closest I came to participating in our capture of Meiktila. I say “our” inasmuch as the battalion was in the thick of the fighting for this vital strongpoint, which was vicious even by the standards of the Burma war, and won two decorations and a battle honour, but of this Nine Section saw nothing, and suffered no more than tired feet and ennui from marching around in the sun. They did not make philosophy about this, knowing that these things average out. That may seem obvious, but I had yet to learn it, and I’m not sure that I ever did altogether: it always seemed rather unjust that while one company might be eating mangoes and bathing its feet, another should be getting all hell shot out of it, or that two sections could go in together and one wouldn’t even see a Jap all day, while the other lost half its strength in clearing bunkers not far away.
Another discovery was that the size and importance of an action is no yardstick of its personal unpleasantness. A big operation which commands headlines may be a dawdle for some of those involved, while the little forgotten patrol is a real horror. The capture of Meiktila means that gallon tin to me, while other episodes which can still enliven my nightmares receive only a passing mention in regimental accounts, if that. Mention Meiktila to any surviving pensioner of my old section and he will sip his pint, nod reflectively, and say “Aye”; but drop the name of a little unheard-of pagoda that doesn’t even get into the index of the big official history and he will let out an oath, sink the pint in one gulp, and start talking.
(It’s an illustration of the fortunes of war, a phrase that always reminds me of a night later on, when I shared a cigarette with three men from another platoon, and we talked vaguely of having a pint in the Apple Tree on Lowther Street when we got home. Before dawn one of them was dead, another had killed a Jap and been wounded, and the third had slept through it – and he hadn’t just been keeping his head down, either; he wasn’t like that. My own contribution to the night’s activities had been to come within an ace of killing a comrade, a recollection that still makes me sweat.)
But we knew that Jap had died hard in and around Meiktila; the rumour ran that in one hospital more than a hundred wounded had committed suicide rather than be taken; this proved to be true. It seemed incredible, after the hammering he’d had at Imphal; from listening to the older heads I gathered that they’d been hoping to hear of cases of surrender at this stage in the war, but apparently there had been none.
From the official map I see that we came into Meiktila on foot from the west, but all I recall is volumes of smoke rising from the cluster of low white buildings between the lakes, and the distant sound of firing and explosions. It isn’t much of a place; in the six weeks we were there I never visited what was left of the town proper, but I spent three days at the airstrip on the way out after VJ Day, living on tinned salmon sandwiches and attending a camp concert which featured a bald, bespectacled, desperately dirty comedian who told the story of Flossie the Frog. (I’m sorry, I can’t help my eccentric memory.) When we marched in we knew only that it was a vital link in Jap’s communications, and that he would want it back.
Our platoon position was on the perimeter, on the crest of a gentle slope running up from one of the lakes and looking out across a hundred yards of flat ground to undergrowth which you wouldn’t dignify with the name of jungle, with a fairly thick wood to our right front. The perimeter was a deep sloping horizontal apron of barbed wire (a better protection against infantry than any upright fence or coils of Dannet), and a few yards inside this we dug our two-man rifle pits with the usual dog-leg pit for the Bren. Behind us was platoon headquarters, consisting of the pits of Lieutenant Gale, Sergeant Hutton, and Gale’s batman and runner; behind that was company H.Q., which in my memory consists of the camp stool belonging to the company commander, Long John. There were two brigades of us inside the wire which enclosed the two lakes in a box perhaps four miles by three, and when the third brigade came in by air that was the whole of the Black Cat Division within the “anvil”, eighty miles inside Jap territory, “surrounded”, says the history, “by numerically superior forces”, and waiting for the “hammer” of 5th Div – and, in the meantime, Jap.
“’E’ll be at us like a rat up a fookin’ drainpipe,” said Sergeant Hutton, and the section gave pessimistic growls, and spoke with deep feeling of our prospects.
Fortunately I’d been brought up in Cumberland, and knew that the natives would rather moan than eat; the British soldier is famous for complaint, but for sheer sour prolonged bitching in adversity commend me to the English West March. It comes out in a disgusted guttural growl rising to a full-tongued roar of discontent, and subsides into normal conversation:
“In the shit again! Ah’ve ’ad it, me.”
“We’ll all git killed.”
“Whee’s smeukin’, then?”
“Booger off, Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”
“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”
“Whee’s gonna brew up, then? Eh, Wattie, you’ve got the tin.”
“Brew up yer bloody sel’. Ah’ve carried the bloody thing a’ day!”
“Aw, wrap up, ye miserable sods! Eh, Jock, git the fire lit, there’s a lad.”
“All right, you get the bloody sticks.” (Evil associations corrupt good manners, you see.)
“Idle Scotch git! Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”
An outsider wouldn’t have realised it, but they were in good spirits, and I should remark here that they were not foul-mouthed, as soldiers go. Many never swore at all, and those who did swore as birds sing, so naturally that you hardly noticed. You must imagine the above conversation punctuated by the Cumbrian’s dirty, snarling chuckle; they are the only people I know who can moan and laugh together; they took pleasure in reviling each other, and I remember those section brew-ups as some of the friendliest gatherings of my life. Little, the corporal, listening, not saying much; Nixon with his pipe under the drooping moustache, spitting into the fire; Steele noisy and assertive, the lean young face eager in the firelight; Wedge working methodically at his rifle, one moment laughing, the next worrying about whether 5th Div could get through before … ; Grandarse sprawled contented like a captain at an inn, his pialla in an enormous paw, red face beaming; Parker with his sharp Max Miller banter, never stuck for an answer; the Duke yawning and making occasional remarks which invariably attracted mimicry, at which he would smile tolerantly; Stanley off in a reverie of his own, replying quietly when spoken to, then lapsing into contemplation again; Forster’s twisted grin as he needled and sneered – “Ah could piss better chah than thoo brews, Jock” … “Reet, noo … whee’s got the fags?”
If the knowledge that they were surrounded and outnumbered by the most cruel and valiant foe on earth worried them, it didn’t show, ever. Times have changed now, and it is common to hear front-line troops, subjected to the disgusting inquisition of war reporters, confess to being scared. Of course they’re scared; everybody’s scared. But it was not customary to confess it, then, or even hint at it. It was simply not done, partly out of pride, but far more from the certainty that nothing could be better calculated to sap confidence, in one’s self, in one’s comrades, and among those at home. If I’d heard Corporal Little voice the kind of anxiety that television so loves to ferret out and harp on nowadays, I’d have wondered if he was the man for the job – and felt even more nervous myself. I was a worried man in Burma, but I hope it didn’t show. Nothing put more heart into me, young and unsure as I was – most of all, fearful of being seen to be fearful – than the fact that, being a Scot, it was half expected of me that I would be a wild man, a head case. This age-old belief among the English, that their northern neighbours are desperate fellows, hangs on, and whether it’s true or not it’s one hell of an encouragement when you’re nineteen and wondering how you’ll be when the whistle blows and you take a deep breath and push your safety catch forward.
Talk about morale: Nine Section was morale, they and the barking Sergeant Hutton, and tall Long John, the courteous, soft-spoken company commander whose modest demeanour concealed a Berserker, and the tough, black-browed colonel to whom I never spoke until he warned me for a late tackle in a bloodbath of a Cumberland Rugby Cup match (Carlisle v. Aspatria) after the war, and all the rest of that lean and hungry battalion. To say nothing of the Gurkhas along the wire, grinning and chirruping, and the fearsome Baluchi hillmen looking like the Forty Thieves. And the green and gold dragon flag of the regiment planted down by the lake, and the black cat insignia of the oldest division in the Army. You felt you were in good company; Jap wasn’t going to stop this lot. (The only remaining question was: was he going to stop me? Well, we’d just have to see; there was no sense worrying about it.)
But the biggest boost to morale was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion by the lake shore – I’m not sure when, but it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I’ve ever seen who had a force that came out of him, a strength of personality that I have puzzled over since, for there was no apparent reason for it, unless it was the time and the place and my own state of mind. Yet others felt it too, and they were not impressionable men.
His appearance was plain enough: large, heavily built, grim-faced with that hard mouth and bulldog chin; the rakish Gurkha hat was at odds with the slung carbine and untidy trouser bottoms; he might have been a yard foreman who had become managing director, or a prosperous farmer who’d boxed in his youth. Nor was he an orator. There have been four brilliant speakers in my time: Churchill, Hitler, Martin Luther King, and Scargill; Slim was not in their street. His delivery was blunt, matter-of-fact, without gestures or mannerisms, only a lack of them.
He knew how to make an entrance – or rather, he probably didn’t, and it came naturally. Frank Sinatra has the same technique, but in his case it may well be studied: no fanfare, no announcement, simply walking onstage while the orchestra are still settling down, and starting to sing. Slim emerged from under the trees by the lake shore, there was no nonsense of “gather round” or jumping on boxes; he just stood with his thumb hooked in his carbine sling and talked about how we had caught Jap off-balance and were going to annihilate him in the open; there was no exhortation or ringing clichés, no jokes or self-conscious use of barrack-room slang – when he called the Japs “bastards” it was casual and without heat. He was telling us informally what would be, in the reflective way of intimate conversation. And we believed every word – and it all came true.
I think it was that sense of being close to us, as though he were chatting offhand to an understanding nephew (not for nothing was he “Uncle Bill”) that was his great gift. It was a reminder of what everyone knew: that Slim had enlisted in 1914, fought in the trenches and at Gallipoli, and risen, without advantages, on his own merits; his accent was respectable, no more, and he couldn’t have talked down if he’d tried. You knew, when he talked of smashing Jap, that to him it meant not only arrows on a map but clearing bunkers and going in under shell-fire; that he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier. A friend of mine, in another division, thoughtlessly decorated his jeep with a skull he’d found: Slim snapped at him to remove it, and then added gently: “It might be one of our chaps, killed on the retreat.” He thought, he knew, at our level; it was that, and the sheer certainty that was built into every line of him, that gave Fourteenth Army its overwhelming confidence; what he promised, that he would surely do. And afterwards, when it was over and he spoke of what his army had done, it was always “you”, not even “we”, and never “I”.
Perhaps the most revealing story, not only about Slim but about what his army thought of him, tells how he was addressing a unit preparing to go into action. The magic must have worked again, for some enthusiast actually shouted: “We’ll follow you, general!” And Slim, with one of his rare smiles, called back: “Don’t you believe it. You’ll be a long way in front of me.”
Not many generals could have got away with that; one cannot imagine Monty saying it. The irony was that it wasn’t true; Slim almost got himself killed in the fighting for Meiktila.
He has been called the best battlefield general since Wellington, which takes in some heavy competition, from Lee and Grant to Montgomery and Rommel. Certainly no general ever did more with less; in every way, he was one of the great captains.
British soldiers don’t love their commanders, much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual. I have a picture of him at a Burma Reunion, standing awkwardly but looking so content, with his soldiers jostling and grinning round him – and that day by the lake, nodding and wishing us luck and turning away under the trees.
I know I have not done him justice. I can only say what Kenneth Roberts wrote of Robert Rogers, that the thought of him was like home and safety.
The defence of Meiktila necessitated a proper barbed-wire apron, but later, farther south, I don’t recall wire often being used, probably because we were seldom in one position for long. A battalion or company “box”, held for a night or two, might have a single trip-wire, but usually the perimeter consisted of our slit-trenches.
Winston Churchill has said that there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and not being hit. Each to his taste; I wouldn’t call it exhilarating, quite, but it does bring a reaction beyond mere relief; satisfaction, I think. The first time it happened to me I didn’t even realise it, at first. We were patrolling, four of us, less than a mile out from the perimeter, scouting for any sign of impending counter-attack on Meiktila, and had just turned back; all round there was dusty plain and dry paddy stretching away into the haze, with here and there a grove of trees in the distance and patches of scrub. Corporal Little had paused to scan with his binoculars, and I was crossing the crest of a little bund when there was a sharp pfft! in the air above me, followed a little later by a distant crack. If the others had reacted quickly, I’d have done the same, but Little simply squatted down, and the other two looked round before following suit; there was no sudden hitting of the deck or cries of alarm. Little just said: “Gidoon, Jock,” and continued his scan.
“Somewheres ower theer,” called Forster.
“Aye,” said Little, and lowered his glasses. “Bloody miles off. Lal bastard. Awoy, then, let’s git on.”
That was all. No second shot, and not a thing to be seen, but their lack of interest, let alone concern, nonplussed me until I reflected that the shot had come from a long way off, that the chance of its hitting had been negligible, and there was nothing to be done about it anyway: searching in the general direction of the sniper would have been futile and risky. Had it been at closer range, that would have been different; as it was, Little’s job was to reconnoitre and report.
So I concluded, and I didn’t bother Little with questions. Later, when I analysed my reactions to being shot at for the first time, I realised that they were – nothing. And that, I’m sure, was because the others hadn’t given a tuppenny dam about it. If they had leaped around screaming, I’d have been fit to be tied, no doubt. That incident, trivial though it was, taught me a lesson, which I pass on to any young soldier who may be interested. If you want to know how scared you’ve a right to be, look at the men around you. (And if you happen to be a young subaltern, remember that they’re looking at you.)
Among the soldier’s fears, that of being shot at is probably one of the least, unless it’s at close range, and then there is seldom time to be afraid. He would rather not be sniped at, of course, but experience breeds, if not contempt, at least a certain fatalism: they haven’t got him yet, and with luck they won’t. Everyone has his own different priority of panic, to be sure, and what scares one man witless may not worry another unduly, and vice versa; my own special antipathy was to sitting about in the dark in the presence, real or imminent, of the enemy, with nothing to do but wait because those were the orders. Some, on the other hand, found having to move around in darkness even more trying, and they have a point. I suppose it depends how much faith you have in your own agility – Grandarse loathed night patrolling, for example, and was given as little of it as possible, not to spare his feelings but because the last thing you need is sixteen unwieldy stone crashing about in the undergrowth and breathing loud enough to be heard in Tokyo.
I’m sure that out of my total active service I spent only an infinitesimal time operating in the Burmese night, but in retrospect it seems longer.
The defensive scheme for 17th Div entailed incessant patrolling, both by night and day. You might think that in our situation, cut off by superior numbers, the obvious thing would have been to sit tight and let Jap come at us; having seen my share of Westerns I envisaged waves of them charging the wire while we blazed away at them. Wiser heads than mine knew that it was vital to break up his attacks before they could even be launched, hence the expeditions, sometimes in battalion strength, to fall on his concentration points, the patrols, of varying size, to spy out his movements, and the observation posts, outside the perimeter, to give warning of night attacks. And on the wire itself, the night stag, two guards per section dusk to dawn, unless an alarm necessitated a 50 or 100 per cent stand-to (half or all of the section awake and in their rifle pits).
A stag was a two-hour watch of two men, armed with rifles and bandoliers, normally standing in one pit, but at Meiktila there was an old bunker half-under the wire, and it was usual to lie on the inner slope of this, looking out across the empty ground to the scrub and wood. I don’t remember it ever being pitch black; there always seemed to be half-light, and sometimes the moon turning the scene to silver and casting shadows across the landscape. It was eerie, but placid enough; you got used to the night-sounds and to the odd tricks that your eyesight can play you, causing bushes to stir when they’re perfectly still, or detecting movement from the corner of your eye which isn’t there when you look at it directly. You learned not to concentrate your thoughts, too, for that can take you halfway to sleep – not that this was a problem at Meiktila, where we got adequate rest. Later on it was to be different; when you’re weary to the point of utter exhaustion, keeping awake on stag can be a real ordeal, for you mustn’t move too much or the enemy out yonder will have you marked; you find yourself swaying and realise you were half away, and snap out of it, and a few seconds later your legs buckle and you collapse in your pit – how my knee-caps held out in Southern Burma I’ll never know. You must get up at once, pinch yourself hard, and stare for all you’re worth, or you’ll start to sway again. And so on.
The chief irritant on stag was the “up-you bird” (I give the bowdlerised form of the name) familiar to all who have soldiered in the Far East. In fact, it is a large lizard, said to have a vicious bite, which inhabits drains in the civilised areas; where it lived in the Dry Belt, God knows. It starts up at night and drives strong men mad, for its call is a harsh whirring sound culminating in a melodious “Up you! Up you! Up you!” Half an hour of this, and you become convinced that there is a human being out there, chanting obscenely at you; it is a rare night when some blanket-wrapped form doesn’t come bolt upright with a raging retort of “And up you, too!”
Apart from listening for the enemy, you had to keep an eye and ear open for night patrols returning; it’s a good patrol that can arrive back exactly at its starting-point, and occasionally dark forms would emerge unexpectedly from the gloom, hissing the password. There was a gap in the wire opposite the platoon on our left, manned by a picquet with a Bren, and that was where they would re-enter.
There was a formula for the password, which always consisted of a seven-letter word – “Victory”, for example. In theory, the patrol, when challenged, would identify itself, the sentry would whisper “Victory”, and the patrol would prove its bona fides by responding with whichever letter of “Victory” corresponded with the day of the week, using the Morse alphabet. Thus, if it was Sunday, the correct reply was the first letter of “Victory”, which is “Victor”, if Monday, Ink, if Tuesday, Charlie, and so on. Who thought this up I don’t know, but if he could have heard Grandarse, who seldom knew what day it was at the best of times, and couldn’t spell anything longer than “pint”, trying to persuade Forster that he was not a Japanese White Tiger, he would have thought of something less sophisticated. You may imagine the exchange:
Grandarse (hoarsely from the dark): Is that thoo, marra? It’s me!
Forster (being awkward): Victory.
Grandarse: Ye w’at? Aw, shit, aye … Victory. Haud on, noo. (to a fellow-patroller) ’Ey, Wattie, w’at day is’t? Thoorsdeh – awreddy? Girraway! Aye, weel, let’s see … Moondeh, Choosdeh, Wensdeh, Thoorsdeh – v … i … c … aye, t, that’ll be reet! Tock! ’Ey, thoo on stag, Ah’m sayin’ Tock! Are ye theer?
Forster (knowing it was Thursday when the patrol left, but that midnight has passed): Booger off, yer a fifth columnist!
Grandarse: Bloody ’ell! Whee th’ell’s that? Thoo, Forster, ye git! W’at ye playin’ at? It’s me, sayin’ Tock!
Forster (relenting): It’s Friday, ye daft sod!
Grandarse: Ah, the hell! W’at is’t, then? Orange?
Forster: Awreet, bollock-brain. Coom in if yer feet’s clean.
Fortunately this happened on a night exercise at Ranchi, not in the field, where the system worked well enough, although I sometimes wondered what would happen if a Gurkha or Baluch patrol hit the wire when Grandarse was on guard.
My own stags were marred by only one alarm. It was after a two-day duffy to the south, when we had bumped Jap in numbers, and there had been enemy activity elsewhere on the perimeter for some days previously, so I was more on edge than usual. It was the cold watch, four to six, and I was shivering as I lay alone on the bunker-side, scanning the shadowy open ground and envying the section in their blankets ten yards to my rear. Once or twice I’d thought I’d heard something apart from the usual night-sounds; there was a little wind playing across the earth, rustling the fronds in the distant wood, just the thing to mask stealthy movement. I peered across the bunker’s top, wishing there was a moon; the sky hadn’t begun to lighten, and ten yards away the landscape was just a blur; a Jap fighting patrol could get to within a stone’s throw undetected, if they were quiet enough … was there something out there, beyond the shadows, or was it just my imagination? The dark seemed thicker in that direction … and then I froze at a sudden faint noise, as though a boot had been dragged across the ground, the sound cut off almost as soon as it had started.
There was a dull thumping, too – but that was me, pressed against the bunker, with my heart moving into fourth. I eased my safety-catch forward and laid a sweating finger along the trigger guard. There had been a sound … there it was again … a soft, irregular scrape, as though someone were moving an inch at a time. It was closer now, not more than a couple of yards away … now it had stopped, to be replaced by something that brought the hairs upright on my skull – the sound of breathing. That put it beyond doubt: someone – and it could only be a Jap – was in the little area of dead ground which I couldn’t see beyond the bunker.
At least it wasn’t hard to do the right thing – lie dead still, and with extreme care ease my rifle forward just a little, finger on the trigger, eyes fixed on the dark curve of the bunker top … but, dammit, that was useless! If he wanted to get inside the perimeter, and why the hell else should he have crawled so close? – he’d come round one side of the bunker … or the other. Which way? I must ease myself down from the bunker-side, and back until I could cover either side – but movement meant noise … should I shout the alarm? I hadn’t seen anything … but he was there, and if I yelled, the section would be on their feet, and he’d get somebody for certain … but if I lay doggo, waiting for him to move – and without warning a hideous white face shot into view over the bunker top, glared into mine from not a yard away, and vanished!
For an instant I was paralysed, thank God, or I’d have fired from pure reflex action – and that would have been deplorable, and threepence wasted. For before I could move, let alone shout, a large pale-coloured pi-dog trotted out from beyond the bunker, snuffled at the wire apron, took a discontented look at me, and mooched off into the gloom. The false alarm can never be as bad as the real thing, but it can set the adrenalin pumping just as fast. Watching the brute disappear I reflected that to the fatal perils of enemy rifles, bayonets, artillery, grenades, mortars, punjis, malaria, dysentery, and poisoned wells, I would have to add another – heart failure.
This was an ever-present risk on that other form of stag, the o.p., or observation post, which consisted of two men well outside the wire, lying up in any convenient concealment with a Verey pistol. The procedure was simple: you lay doggo from some time after dusk until dawn to give early warning of any enemy fighting patrol advancing to the perimeter, which was done by letting them go past and then firing the Verey. After which it was advisable to leave the o.p. at speed, since the firing of the flare was a certain giveaway of your position; what happened next depended on the circumstances, as Sergeant Hutton explained:
“Git back in the perimeter if ye can, but if Jap’s at the wire keep clear, or ye’ll git thassel shot be soom booger or other. If ye lie off somewheres ye might git a Jap on ’is way yam, but don’t git thassel killed. Yer oot theer to watch; that’s yer furst job. Dee w’at Nick does an’ ye’ll not be far wrang.”
After which Nixon and I slipped out in the dark and made our way cautiously to a fold in the ground about a hundred yards out which Hutton had marked the previous day. The grove which lay on the section’s right front was now behind us, invisible until the moon came up, and even then only a vague blur, for it was a murky night. We lay in silence, listening to the “up-you” birds giving their midnight chorus, shifting only a little now and then to avoid cramp; my chief worry, since we were lying prone, was that I would drop off to sleep, so I kept a piece of stick upright beneath my chin so that it would prick me if I nodded. I needn’t have troubled; knowing what we were there for, and that there was an outside chance that Jap would turn up, was quite enough to keep me wide awake.
I have said that sitting tight in the dark was my unfavourite occupation, and that is partly because, aside from straining your eyes into blackness and listening, there is nothing to do but think. No doubt it was our exposed position and my morbid imagination that turned my mind to the possibility of being taken prisoner, on which we had been lectured by a lean and rather wild-looking Highland officer at Ranchi. He spoke with authority, having escaped from the Japs himself, and discussed his subject with an enthusiasm that prompted Forster to observe, sotto voce, that this ’un was jungle-happy. I doubted it; he talked too much sense, with a flippancy deliberately calculated not to create alarm and despondency. Having shown us escape kit (with which we, at least, were never issued) like tiny flexible files sewn into seams of clothing, and the magnetic fly-button which, detached and balanced on a point, indicated north (“An’ Ah can joost see mesel’, wid Japanni wallahs efter us, pullin’ me bloody fly-buttons off an’ balancin’ them on me knob,” muttered Grandarse), he went on to remind us of survival and path-finding techniques, but what stayed in the mind was his advice on dealing with captors:
“You can expect ’em to be pretty rough. They’re evil little sods, and couldn’t care less about the Geneva Convention, so there’s a chance they’ll beat you up – not just for information, but for spite. You know the drill: give ’em rank, name, and number, nothing more. Don’t lie to them. Keep your head up and look ’em in the eye. If it’s an officer or someone who speaks English, tell ’em they’re losing face by ill-treating a prisoner; it’s been known to work. But first and foremost – escape! Don’t be daft about it; wait for an even chance, and go! And keep going! You know how to look after yourselves. Don’t trust the Burmese unless you must; they’re mostly friendly, but they’re scared stiff of Jap, so watch it.” The last thing he’d said was: “Whether you escape or not, don’t give up. Remember they’re a shower of sub-human apes, and you’re better men than they’ll ever be.”
He was describing, absolutely accurately, an enemy well outside civilisation, but nothing we hadn’t know since the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore. Like everyone else, I suppose, I wondered how I would be if they got hold of me, which isn’t a happy thought in an o.p. at four in the morning … and Nick stirred beside me and asked in a whisper what time it was.
I had only to glance at the luminous dial of my watch to send my thoughts off at another tangent: breakfast at home, with my parents presenting the watch on my eighteenth birthday: there was the old, stiffly-laundered tablecloth bearing in its centre the faint embossed legend “Chicago Athletic Club” – not pinched by an itinerant relative, I may say, but a flawed item bought by my thrifty grandmother from the Paisley mill – and the triangles of toast in the rack, the monthly jar of marmalade with the golliwog label, the damp strong smell of the tea-cosy when my mother lifted it from the pot, the curious wartime breakfast of scrambled powdered egg and “Ulster fry” (one of Spam’s poor relations), my father glancing through his Glasgow Herald before checking his battered leather prescription book and hurrying off to his round of visits and morning surgery, the little electric fire making its occasional sparks … and in the darkness a few yards away a shadow was moving, and it wasn’t a pi-dog this time; it was small and stunted but definitely human, standing in a slight crouch, a rifle held across the body, then moving slowly forward.
I had only to slide my hand a few cautious inches to touch Nick, and his head turned; I didn’t have to point. I can see his sharp face with the heavy moustache, and the movement of his lips, pursed as though to shush me – which wasn’t necessary, really. We lay holding our breaths, heads close together, willing our bodies into the ground as we watched the figure advance, a slow step at a time, the dark blur of the head turning from side to side. If he held his course he would pass about five yards to our right; in that light he would have to be a bloody lynx to make out two figures on that broken ground – unless we moved. The temptation to get my hand on the stock of my rifle was strong, but I resisted it; by good chance the muzzle was pointed almost straight at him, and if he did spot us I would have to be damned slow not to get my shot in first … He was level with us now, treading delicately with barely a sound; he paused to look back and gestured, and other figures, equally small and ungainly, emerged from the gloom in single file – Jesus! there were eight of them, moving like misshapen little ghosts. It took them an eternity to pass our position, while I let my breath out with painful slowness and inhaled again; once I felt rather than heard Nick give a tiny gasp, and as the last figure faded into the dark behind us I turned my head to look at him. To my amazement he was grinning; he gave that little patting motion of the hand that says, settle down, take it easy, and when I stirred a finger towards the Verey pistol, lying between us, he shook his head. Still grinning, he put his lips to my ear and whispered:
“Goorkas! Ey, and they nivver even smelt us!”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, came the faint sound of voices far behind us; they were at the wire, making their presence known.
Another anti-climax – and another lesson, which I learned when it grew light, and silence was no longer necessary.
“How the hell did you know they were Gurkhas? They looked bloody like Japs to me!”
“They did to me, an’ a’ – at foorst. They’re a’ shortarsed boogers, sitha, but there’s one way ye can always tell Johnnie Goorka fra’ Johnnie Jap – Ah mean, w’en it’s dark-like, an’ ye can’t mek oot their fesses, joost their shapes. Ah didn’t spot it till they was near on past us. Always look at their ankles, Jock! The Goorkas, see, wear short puttees, like oors, so their troosers is baggy reet the way doon till their ankles. Noo, Jap wears lang puttees, nigh on up till ’is knee, so ’is legs look thin, ez if ’e ’ad stockin’s on!” Nick chuckled, well pleased. “An’ they walked reet by us! Heh-hee! The boogers!”
“Shouldn’t we have let on?” I realised the answer to the damfool question even before I’d finished asking it.
“Git hired, Jock! Ye’ve bin on night patrol – if soom booger challenges from underfoot, ye’re liable to do ’im! Ah want to die me own fookin’ way, not wid a kukri up me gunga!” This seemed to prompt another thought. “Ayup, tho’. Look, we’ll ’ev to tell Tut Hutton that we saw ’em, but we’ll not let on till anybuddy bar ’im. Mind, noo, Jock – doan’t tell nobuddy else.”
“If you say so – but why not?”
“Ah, they’re grand lal lads, the Goorkas – but, man, they’re proud! An’ they tek their sojerin’ seriously, an’ a’.” He wagged a finger. “Ah tell ye, if they foond oot they’d coom near treadin’ on us in’t dark, an’ ’edn’t spotted us, they’d ga fookin’ crackers! They wad, tho’! The naik leadin’ that patrol wadn’t ’ev to git busted – ’e’d bust ’is bloody sel’, man, oot o’ shame! An’ Ah’m nut kiddin’.” He shook his head in admiration. “So we’ll say nowt aboot it – bar to Hutton. Awreet, Jock? Good lad.” He had another chuckle to himself. “Walked reet by us, an’ a’! Nut bad, eh?”
I sympathised with the Gurkhas, having no doubt that in similar circumstances I could have walked through the whole Japanese Imperial Guards Division without knowing it. “All we had to do was lie still,” I suggested.
“Aw, aye? Is that reet, Jock? Girraway! Ah’m glad ye told us.” Cumbrian sarcasm is never applied lightly. “Lissen – the Goorkas is the best night scoots in the bloody wurrld! By God, there isn’t many can say the Goorkas nivver spotted their o.p.! Noo, an’ Ah’m tellin’ ye!”
“Right pair of Mohicans we must be.”
“Aye, laff, ye girt Scotch git! Looksta, if they’d bin Japs, an’ we’d fired oor Verey, they’d ha’ bin nailed, ivvery bloody one, on the wire wid their arses oot the winder! Wadn’t they?” He was quite belligerent about it. “Awreet, then! We did oor job, an’ the Goorkas missed us! An’ that’s nut bad! That’s a’ Ah’m saying!”
Well, he was infinitely better qualified to judge these things than I, and his words prompted a disturbing thought: if I’d been alone in the o.p. I’d certainly have fired the Verey, the Gurkhas would have been caught in the glare, and might well have been wiped out by a nervous Bren gunner making the same mistake as I had done. Nick had identified them by the shape of their legs – and that is something you won’t find in any infantry training manual. But then, he was what the Constable of France would have called a very valiant, expert gentleman. The irony was that it almost cost him his life a few nights later.
I have been reminded that the rule of two men to a night stag was inviolable; nevertheless, I am positive that on this occasion I was on my own. The explanation can only be that the section strength had been so reduced by casualties in recent actions that two-men stags were, for a night or two, impossible.
Ex-Fourteenth Army men may take issue with me for suggesting that a sentry would ever alert his comrades by shouting. The approved method was to have a log-line or creeper running from the sentry to the nearest sleeper, who could be aroused silently by tugging it, and I remember doing this in jungle country farther south. At Meiktila the ground was open, and I don’t recall ever using log-lines there.
Get hired = get a job. One of the Cumbrian’s many expressions of derision, referring to the custom whereby an unemployed farm worker would stand with a straw in his mouth at Carlisle Cross during the hiring fair, waiting to be approached with an offer of work.
Great, big, but like “lal” or “lyle” (little) it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with physical size, being just a familiar adjective.
“‘Ey, Jock, are ye any good at ’rithmetic?”
“Not much, sarn’t, I’m afraid.”
“Well, mek’s nae matter. Ah’ll keep thee reet. Noo them – ’oo many fellers is there in’t British Army?”
“Gosh, I dunno. Five million?”
“An’ ’oo many o’ them’s in Boorma?”
“Half a million, maybe?”
“An’ ’oo many o’ them’s in this battalion?”
“About a thousand.”
“An’ ’oo many o’ them’s in Nine Section?”
“So if ye’re in’t Army, w’at’s the odds against bein’ in Nine Section? Tek time, noo.”
“I haven’t the least idea.”
“Iggerant booger. Ah’ll tell thee. It’s ’alf a million to one.”
“If you say so. I’m fascinated.”
“Ye will be. Ye’re the section scout, aren’t ye?”
“I am, and I think I begin to see where your elaborate calculation is leading, sarn’t –”
“Shurroop an’ charge yer magazine. Noo, 17th Div’s ahead o’ Fourteenth Army, an’ this battalion’s leadin’ 17th Div, an’ Nine Section’s oot in froont, foorther sooth than any oother boogers in Sooth-east Asia Command – are ye follerin’ this, Jock?”
“With interest. Sarn’t Hutton, do you know what a sadist is?”
“By, Jock, yer a loocky yoong feller! The odds against bein’ the leadin’ man in the whole fookin’ war effort against Japan is five million to one –”
“And I’m the one. Thank you very bloody much.”
“So git thasel oot on point, keep yer eyes oppen, an’ think on – me an’ Choorchill’s watchin’ ye!”
The fight to retain Meiktila was to be long and bitter since the Japanese concentrated every unit and formation they could to break Fourteenth Army’s stranglehold … It is a tribute to the Japanese that nobody had any doubt that, rather than break off the fight and withdraw, they would launch a counter-offensive with every unit they could assemble …
Although 17th Division was surrounded … by numerically superior forces, Cowan’s policy was to retain the initiative by using a very small number of troops for static defence and sending out columns in all directions to strike at Japanese communications and enemy forces which had cut his own land communication …
What I have described so far was the “static defence” of Meiktila, and so far as that was concerned Nine Section had it cushy – doing stag, mounting the occasional o.p., keeping our weapons clean, and waiting to be sent out Jap-hunting in force with the Sherman tanks of Probyn’s Horse. Jap attacked the wire elsewhere, I believe, but never in our sector, and while we were inside the perimeter life was tranquil. Snapshots of memory:
Playing in one game of football on the bare space behind our rifle pits, and being impressed by the brilliance of a young centre-half from Workington who came close to an England cap a few years later, and the speedy reflexes of an officer from another platoon; he was a Cameron Highlander, and I had occasion to note his speed later on. Also the bone-shattering violence of the man marking me, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, no less, who was completely bald (what Parker called “a lovely head o’ skin”) and who gave me the only wound I received in the war, a neat little scar on my left knee.
Watching someone do Number Two Field Punishment
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