Sentry Page Protection
Reginald Melville Ward Lowe
Burma Railways Engineer
1928-1942 and 1945-1947
"Some Memories of Burma and the Burma Railways"
press ctrl f to search this page
Reginald Melville Ward Lowe, as T/Captain, Indian Army Engineers, Dec. 1942
Reginald "Reg" writes in the preface to these memoirs - " Two years ago (c. 1991) I wrote some memories of our life in Burma during the years 1928 -1942 and 1945-1947, the intervening years being spent in military service in India, to which country we evacuated when the Japanese invaded and occupied Burma... (After a car accident in 1993 his dining room was temporarily converted to a bed room and his original manuscript was "lost" in this re-shuffle.) Having spent some considerable time (and some money) in producing these "Burma Memories" I was saddened by their loss. Fortunately, my nephew's charming wife had previously made a photocopy for herself and so was able to give me copies and so I was back to square one, as it were, except for the loss of some original photos and documents.
At the age of 87, I propose to record here some of my recollections of working as a Civil Engineer from 1928 to 1947 on the Burma Railways:-
After obtaining the necessary technical qualifications, in my case B Sc. (Eng.) London, A.C.G.I. (Associate of the City and Guilds Institute of Engineers) and D.I.C. (Post Graduate Diploma of the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Structural Engineering) and working on some engineering projects in London in 1926 and 1927, I was informed that the Burma Railways Company, whose company head office was in the City of London, required some young Civil Engineers.
Knowing nothing of Burma, but tempted perhaps by the offer of a sterling salary more than my wage at that time, I attended an interview with the Company Directors at their London office. I was appointed by them in late 1927 and made my way to Burma, arriving by ship at Rangoon, at the beginning of 1928. Norman McAllister, then Assistant Engineer in Rangoon, met me and took me to the Head Offices where I was introduced to various senior officers of the Railway staff, including the Chief Engineer G.A. Hicks, the Deputy Chief J. Rowland (later Sir John Rowland) the Agent Mr. Glascott, Mr Crosthwaite (later Sir Bertram Crosthwaite) and Mr Darby of the Traffic Managerial Staff.
After spending a few days in Rangoon getting to know other members of the Head Office Staff and also purchasing some furniture, kitchen equipment and crockery, I then had to engage a personal servant who could cook, apart from looking after my new possessions. he also had to be able to understand English and Burmese. I obtained an Indian servant who had been born and bred in Burma and I found him to be reliable and trustworthy. Meanwhile, I wondered as to which part of the Railway system I was likely to be posted.
Perhaps I should explain here what constituted the Burma Metre Gauge Railway, whose total main line track mileage was, I think, about 1800 miles.....
This track mileage does not include the double track lines (e.g. Rangoon to Mandalay) consisted of:
(1) Rangoon to Mandalay via Pegu, Toungoo, Pyinmana, Yamethin, Thazi and Myitnge.
(2) Mandalay to Myitkyina via Ava, Sagaing, Ywataung, Shwebo, Kanbalu, Wuntho, Naba, Mohnyin and Mogaung.
(3) Pegu to Martaban via Mokpalin and Thaton.
(4) Moulmein to Ye via Thanbyuzat...
(5) Thazi to Shwenyang (the branch line up into the hills to 3,800 feet in the S. Shan States.)
(6) Mandalay to Lashio (the branch line up into the N. Shan States via Maymyo at about 3,500 feet altitude and the summer residence of the Government of Burma and also the uncompleted rail link to the Chinese border.
(7) Rangoon to Prome, Tharrawaddy and Bassein via Insein (the site of our Loco. Workshops and the offices of the heads of the Locomotive and Electrical Departments of the Railway.
(8) Thazi to Myingyan via Meiktila.
(9) Myingyan to Mandalay.
(10) Pyinmana to Kyaukpadaung via Taungdwingi (this line approached the Burma Oilfields.)
(11) Ywataung to Ye-U via Monywa on the Chindwin River.
Most of the branch lines were from 90 to 140 miles in length. There were also some shorter lengths of track in Rangoon and, I think, also to the Oil Refineries at Syriam. In addition to the track mileage on which passengers and goods trains ran daily, there was also the rail tracks in all Station Yards and other sidings which amounted to many hundreds of miles in total length. I mention this fact as the maintenance of all tracks, bridges and buildings was the responsibility of the Engineering Department.
Until the Ava Bridge over the Irrawaddy from Ava to Sagaing was built and opened to rail and road traffic in 1934, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's river steamers operated the railway ferry services over the Irrawaddy river at Mandalay and Letpadan and also over the Salween river from Martaban to Moulmein.
My first posting was as Assistant Engineer in charge of the railway track from Wuntho to Myitkyina with my headquarters at Katha on the Irrawaddy river and at this end of the 12 mile branch line over the hills from Naba Junction. This line was the northern half of the Sagaing to Myitkyina District with my district Engineer's headquarters at Ywataung.
When receiving my orders to this posting to the furthermost section of the railway from Rangoon, I was also made aware of its reputation as a malarial part of the country and was advised to take the necessary precautions and equip myself with mosquito nets etc.
On my arrival in this district, I had to meet my District Engineer Mr A.G. Vanderbeek, who resided in Ywataung. Other railway Officers also there included the District Traffic Superintendent Mr Brewitt, the District Loco. Officer Mr Lewis, and the Assistant Engineer Mr Cambridge. I then proceeded to Katha to take over my section of the Railway from the Assistant Engineer there Mr G. Stuart, who was due to go on leave.
Top row: Hailes (T), Bodeker (L), Claudius (EE), Ferguson (L), Kendall (E), Hayes (E), Vanderbeek (E)
3rd Row: Parker (A) Blanchard (L), Stewart (L), Johnson (L), Dr. Carrier (M), (4 Burmese Officers, unfortunately names forgotten,)
Rose (S), Binnie (L), Glanville (?)
2nd Row: - ? - , Milne (T), Telfer (SN), - ? - , Dunn (L), Gainsford (L), Fane (T), Air (E), Cotton (S), Lowe (E), Brewitt (T).
Front Row: Long (S), Bevan (E), Richie (E), Mackie (L), Rowland (E), Crosthwaite (T), Darby (T), Chance (A), Dr. Taylor (M), Pratt (L), Aikman (T).
3rd Row: Parker (A) Blanchard (L), Stewart (L), Johnson (L), Dr. Carrier (M), (4 Burmese Officers, unfortunately names forgotten,)
Rose (S), Binnie (L), Glanville (?)
2nd Row: - ? - , Milne (T), Telfer (SN), - ? - , Dunn (L), Gainsford (L), Fane (T), Air (E), Cotton (S), Lowe (E), Brewitt (T).
Front Row: Long (S), Bevan (E), Richie (E), Mackie (L), Rowland (E), Crosthwaite (T), Darby (T), Chance (A), Dr. Taylor (M), Pratt (L), Aikman (T).
E = Engineering, T = Traffic, L = Locomotive, A = Accounts, M = Medical, EE = Electrical, S = Stores, SN = Signals, TL = Telegraph
Other Officers of the railways not in the above photo, as they were out in the districts or on leave at the time:-
Toller, Procter, Butcher, Hossack, Hawtrey, Gawthorne, Cambridge,
Markwick, McAllister, Cant, Strictland, Stuart, Jeffree, Edwards, Manifold,
McCabe, Smith, Stone, U Kyi Win, U Shwe Shane.
Fitzherbert, Loveland, Blakeney?, Lee, Coward, U Sett Kaing.
N. Johnson, Cardew, Lewis, Palmer, Hadfield, Powell, A. (or R.) Johnson.
My apologies to those whose names I have forgotten or omitted.
Toller, Procter, Butcher, Hossack, Hawtrey, Gawthorne, Cambridge,
Markwick, McAllister, Cant, Strictland, Stuart, Jeffree, Edwards, Manifold,
McCabe, Smith, Stone, U Kyi Win, U Shwe Shane.
Fitzherbert, Loveland, Blakeney?, Lee, Coward, U Sett Kaing.
N. Johnson, Cardew, Lewis, Palmer, Hadfield, Powell, A. (or R.) Johnson.
My apologies to those whose names I have forgotten or omitted.
On the whole, I think I can say that I enjoyed my three years stay and work in this part of Burma, which is well provided with flora and fauna. Many lengths of the railway ran among hills and forests and, as I was the possessor of a B.S.A. double barrel 12 bore shotgun and a Colt 44 bore rifle and was keen on shooting, I was able to relax from my railway work at times by shooting either jungle fowl or Pheasant or Partridge and, in season, Snipe and Woodcock.
There was also one occasion when I was involved in a hunt for a wild animal, a Panther, which had attacked and killed a Burman's pet dog as he was walking near a patch of jungle. I was "on line" that day (i.e. on tour) and was in my inspection railway carriage which was "parked" in a siding at Naba Junction. I was busy with some office work and was about to have my lunch when a very scared Burman arrived and told my servants what had happened. He then went on and told his story to the Station Staff and, shortly afterward, I saw the Station Master, a Burman whose name I can't remember and was known to be a keen hunter, with his gun following the man into the nearby jungle.
About twenty minutes or so later, while having my lunch, I heard the distant sound of gunshot and thought that the Station Master must have found and shot the animal. Anxious to see what had happened, I grabbed my 12 bore gun and some cartridges and went in the direction of the gunfire. I hadn't gone very far when I met the Burman, who now had scratches on his body, was bleeding and coming to call me. A little further on in the jungle, I met the Station Master, who told me that when he arrived at the place where the man said his dog had been taken by this animal, the jungle was so thick that they could see no animal. His Burman guide, however, keen to prove his story about the wild animal taking his dog, then tried to force his way into this patch of jungle and the next minute the man was attacked by the wild animal and the gunshot I had heard was a shot fired by the Station Master to scare the animal off the man. He could not shoot at the animal for fear of also shooting the man. By now, other men from a nearby village joined us and, knowing that this dangerous animal was still in this part of the jungle, they decided that, with their dahs (swords) which they always carried and sticks cut from the trees, they would approach this jungle from some open ground on the far side and "beat" the animal towards us so that we could shoot it.
The Station Master and I, with guns loaded, took up position standing about fifty feet apart to the right and left of the patch of jungle and the villagers started "beating" with much shouting and beating of bushes. The panther objected to this, as presumably it was still eating its kill and roared and charged at the beaters who hastily retreated. However, as more beaters arrived, they soon resumed the "beat" and I saw the animal run out of its patch of jungle and come up a path towards me. As I waited for it to come within range of my shotgun, the Station Master, who was further away from it and hadn't as good a sighting of it, fired. I could see his shot miss the panther and the animal stopped and leapt into the bushes on the other side of the path and dsappeared. I was very diasppointed that we hadn't shot it. Some two weeks later, I heard that it was still scaring the local villagers and killing their cattle and that some Shikari had "sat up" near a kill and had "bagged it."
I must apologise for this long diversion from my job as an Engineer on the Burma Railways. At the age of 25 at this time, I kept reasonably fit and enjoyed my work and also the social life in headquarters in Katha, where, in the evening, in the local club, one would meet some of the other officials, such as the Deputy Commissioner, the Police Superintendent, the Forest Officers and their wives and the young bachelor members of the timber firms such as Steel Brothers and the Bombay Burma Trading Company. I must have arrived in Katha shortly after Eric Blair, better known as the writer George Orwell, who had been the Assistant Police Superintendent there, had left. His novel "Burmese Days" reminds me of life there in those times.
One usually played tennis on the club courts in the evening and later relaxed with a drink and a game of bridge or billiards in the clubhouse. One was also able to relax and enjoy some of the social life when on tour at the northern end of the railway at the town of Myitkyina.
Although very much on my own, and some 600 miles from Rangoon and 200 miles from my District Engineer's headquarters, I was at times required to proceed south to help in restoring rail communications when heavy floods during the rainy season washed away parts of the railway line and bridges. I recall one such occasion when, being the only railway officer on a train travelling to Shwebo, the flood waters from the range of hills to the east of the railway and flowing towards the west, had been held by the railway embankment and restricted by the only railway bridge there of three 20 foot spans through which the flood water was rushing. The driver of the train, alarmed by what he saw, stopped the train just short of the bridge and came to ask me whether or not he should take the train over the bridge. It seemed to me that there was as much danger in waiting to decide this as delay could make the bridge more unsafe and there was also the possibility that the build-up of the flood water could breach the embankment on which the train was standing. So we had to take the risk of taking the train over the bridge which was successfully accomplished but only just in time, as the bridge was washed away shortly after and had to be rebuilt.
In another part of this section of the railway, where between the stations of Padu and Ketka the track ran for some 3 or 4 miles across some rather low-lying country, the flood had formed a large lake with only the tops of the trees visible and the railway track for at least a couple of miles was under water by about 12 to 18 inches. It had to be decided, as there was no sign of the water level subsiding, to raise the track level by inserting stone boulders and ballast under the track and at the same time digging with manual labour a channel a few miles long from the lake to the nearest river bed to reduce the water level. Needless to say, even with a large labour force recruited from the neighbouring villages, it was a few weeks before the normal running of the trains could be resumed.
In 1931 I had my transfer orders. I had, during my three years in this northern most section of the railway, managed to avoid getting Malaria, for which the area was notes. Instead, through unknowingly eating contaminated food in a railway "refreshments room," I contacted Amoebic Dysentery. The only treatment for this appeared to be injections of Emetine Hydrochloride. This stopped the effects of the Dysentery so that one could continue one's normal activities but did not cure it. Although I should have taken some casual leave and gone to Rangoon for proper treatment, I continued working and at intervals of two to three months, receiving an Emetine injection. I paid for my stupidity regarding this a few years later when, owing to Amoebic cysts having got into my blood, I found all my joints seizing up and I could walk only with some difficulty and with the help of two walking sticks, but more about that condition later.Head
Jack Jeffree came to take over from me at Katha and I moved to kalaw, at about 3700 feet up in the S. Shan States. My new section of the railway extended for about 160 miles from Myingyan to Shwenyaung at the north end of Inle Lake and not far from Taunggyi which was only approached by road and was the headquarters of the Civil District Commissioner of that area. It was pleasant to be living and working for a while in the cooler climate of the hills.
Owing to the gradients of up to 1 in 25 and the sharp curves (up to 17%) of the railway track necessary to negotiate the hills and climb to an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, all trains between Thazi and Shweyaung, a distance of about 90 miles, were hauled by Beyer-Garrett Locomotives. These heavy articulated locomotives, with their larger boilers and two swivelling power bogies were capable of hauling quite heavy loads up the hills but one of the worries of the Engineer responsible for track maintenance was the wear caused to the rails, especially on the sharp curves.
There was also some wear caused by the sorbitic steel rails to the tyres of the engine wheels but this was the responsibility of the Locomotive Department. Lubrication of the inner sides of the outer rails on sharp curves was considered as helping to reduce wear, but the climate conditions and the possibility of the lubricant spreading over the rail heads and thus reducing friction and so the tractive force of the locomotive did not recommend it.
During the monsoon season of, I think, 1931, the continuous rain over some days, caused a landslide of part of the hillside at an altitude of about 3,800 feet and the rocks, earth and trees had fallen into the railway cutting and completely blocked it. The driver of a train coming up the hill saw this blockage in time to stop his train just short of it. The news of this landslide soon reached all stations and all trains stopped at the nearest stations. The site could only be reached by rail so I reached it as soon as I could by railway trolley. Having seen the hundreds of tons of earth and boulders to be moved only by manual labour, no mechanical means available or workable on the steep hillside. I reported the position to my District Engineer at Yamethin and to Rangoon and arranged for a large labour force, with the necessary tools and explosives for blasting and breaking up the very large boulders in the blockage. Working day and night using lights from portable generators and with a large labour force of some 200 men drilling, blasting, digging and man-handling the debris out of the cutting and throwing it down the hillside it took us the best part of a week to clear the line. The urgency for this work was not only the need to restore the railway for passenger travel but also for the export of fruit, mostly oranges from the Shan States. Of course, whilst this work was progressing, we were also having to contend with the rain which continued and caused further falls of earth and stone. One night as I was in the "cutting" with the men working there and was holding an umbrella over me as it was raining, a large stone fell from the hillside above and went through my umbrella, just missing me. I quickly folded up the umbrella and pretended that nothing had happened.
Sometime in 1932, I was transferred from Kalaw to the Ava Bridge Construction with headquarters at Ywataung, the other side of the Irrawaddy from Mandalay. The river at the site of the bridge is nearly three quarters of a mile wide and the bridge spans it with nine spans of 360' steel trusses; one span of 260' steel truss and 6 approach spans of 60' girders, all carrying the centre rail track and a roadway cantilevered out on each side.
When I arrived the abutments and all piers had been built and the erection of the steel work had started from the west end of the bridge, the third 360' span over the river being nearly completed. The steel spans of the bridge had to be constructed at a height above the highest flood water level of the river to clear the superstructure and funnels of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's steamers, which meant a height of about 30' as far as I can remember. My work included supervision of the bridge approaches and rail track and the building of a station halt at Sagaing.
The Ava Bridge which now made direct road and rail communications possible between south and north Burma, was opened to traffic in 1934. The railway Engineer in charge of the bridge construction was Mr G.G.T. Toller and Mr Cyril Kendall was one of the Assistant Engineers throughout the construction work.
My next posting for a few months was to Myitnge (near Mandalay) where the Railway Carriage and Wagon Workshops were situated. My section of railway track extended from Myingyan to Mandalay and thirty miles north of Mandalay to Madaya. The District Engineer at Mandalay was Bert Hayes, who kindly lent me his compressor and paint spraying outfit, which enabled me to respray my Chevrolet car.
Our social life, when not on tour, was often spent at the Mandalay Club, which was situated within Mandalay Fort, where also was the old Mandalay Palace. These were all destroyed in the course of the fierce fighting to capture the Fort from the Japanese in 1944.
From Myitnge late in 1933, I was transferred to Moulmein, Mr McCabe, just back from his home leave, taking over my job there. I remember my stay in Moulmein as Engineer in charge of the Moulmein to Ye branch of the railway. The only other railway officer there at that time, was the Assistant Traffic Superintendent Mr Fitzherbert, whose house was next to mine. Moulmein, itself, was quite a pleasant town on the east side of the Gulf of Martaban and so separated from the rest of Burma by the wide mouth of the Salween river.
While at Moulmein, I managed to persuade my District Engineer in Rangoon to let me have a motor railway trolley, which he kindly did, provided that I could get it and the railway wagon which housed it (weighing about 4 tons) over the two miles or so of river between the railway terminal at Martaban and Moulmein! By laying an extension of rail track down to the river bank at Martaban and connecting it to a floating jetty, I managed to get the wagon loaded onto a boat and across the water to a jetty at Moulmein and, therefore, was able to do my track and bridge inspection work much quicker using the motor trolley.
A few miles from Moulmein by road there was a swimming pool and a landscaped garden with a pavilion with facilities for showers and changing rooms. A private property which we were allowed to use and did at weekends with our friends. Picnics there, especially on moonlit nights were very popular. We also sometimes went by road to Amherst, a small seaside resort about 40 miles south of Moulmein, where it was pleasant to swim and picnic on the sandy shore. One had to swim strongly at times to resist the strong currents which tended to sweep one away into the bay.
After a stay of about 18 months or so in Moulmein, I was transferred to Rangoon (in 1934/5) with responsibility for the Pegu to Martaban section of the railway. This 150 miles of track includes the Sittang Bridge which crossed the Sittang river restricted in width to 800 yards just west of Mokpalin with, as far as I can remember, 11 spans of 200' steel trusses. The river is very fast flowing under the bridge and tends to scour the foundations of its piers which need the protection of large quantities of stone boulders placed around them at not infrequent intervals. The Engineer is required to take regular inspections of this bridge.
In Rangoon, I shared a house with Mr Aikman and Mr Glanville of the Railway Traffic Department and enjoyed the social life there when not out on tour. As a young bachelor in Rangoon one frequented the "Silver Grill" where one wined and dined and was entertained with music and cabaret shows and as a member of the Rangoon Gymkhana Club, with its large club house and tennis and squash courts one played tennis, squash or billiards and met the young ladies at the Saturday evening dances there.
In October 1935, I was granted my 9 months home leave, which was long overdue. After handing over to my successor, I sailed from Rangoon in November. During my holiday and on Good Friday 1936, when visiting family friends of longstanding who lived near Folkestone, I met their daughter, Marjory, an attractive young lady and a qualified chemist who was working in Dover. We had met before in the 1920's when I was a college student and she was still at school. Needless to say, we fell in love and were married on her birthday in July 1936 and she accompanied me on our voyage to Burma in August that year.
Back in Rangoon, we stayed for a short while in the comfortable Railway Officer's rest rooms at Rangoon station, where my old servant came to greet me and see what the new "Memsahib" was like. He seemed to approve and we acquired another servant by the name of Raj who had been a lady's servant and was experienced in laundering, ironing and generally looking after ladies clothes. He also understood and spoke some English.
My next posting was as Assistant Engineer at Pyinmana, a station on the main line about half way between Rangoon and Mandalay. My section of railway track and bridges extended from Pyinmana northwards to Thazi junction on the main line and westwards on the branch line from Pyinmana to Kyaukpadaung by the Irrawaddy river and close to the Burma Oil Company's oil fields, a total distance of about 160 miles. I took over my duties at Pyinmana from Cyril Kendall and we moved into the house which was pleasantly situated on a hill overlooking a lake.
We soon got to know the other official residents in Pyinmana by joining the club where, in the evenings, one played tennis and later, in the clubhouse, bridge or billiards or sat and talked or read the English papers. The membership included the Sessions Judge, Mr Healy, the Director of Agriculture, Mr McLean, the District Forest Officers, Mr Burgess, Mr McKay and Mr Warwick, the Agents of the firms such as Steel Bros. and the sub-divisional officer Mr Glass, I.C.S. Most of these officers also had their wives with them so we enjoyed many social activities together, especially when the younger bachelor members of the timber firms came in from the teak forests where they had been working.
My wife's parents, obviously anxious to see the far away country their daughter had gone to, sailed for Burma by a Bibby Line steamer and arrived in Rangoon in December 1937, where we met them, the railway powers-that-be, having kindly allowed us the use of a comfortable saloon inspection carriage attached to the main train, we journeyed the 200 miles to Pyinmana, arriving at our house at night, where our servants greeted us and had all electric lights on and some refreshments.
Our elderly relations spent two months with us which included the Christmas holiday, where they witnessed the Eastern custom of one's railway contractors coming on Christmas Day to garland us with Marigold flowers and presenting us with sweets and fruit and sometimes also a bottle or two of wine or spirits. My rejection of any such presents from those contractors whose works I had found unsatisfactory, was considered by my mother-in-law to be ungracious until I explained the reasons to her.
Our local friends were most helpful in entertaining our in-laws and showed them various interesting local activities such as elephants at work dragging the large teak logs which had been floated down the river and had got stranded on some obstruction and required to be re-floated so that the next flood would take them further down the river. They left Burma in February 1937 and sailed for home.
My wife, a qualified chemist, was asked to assist the other ladies in the town, which included some Burmese and Indian ladies, in helping to "run" a new child welfare clinic, which she was pleased to do. My railway work meanwhile, was somewhat routine maintenance work which necessitated my being on tour on my 160 miles of railway for at least 15 days a month. Usually not more than three days at a time on tour and then a return to headquarters to attend to office work.
Our servants were used to the usual procedure for touring for which we had a private railway saloon carriage allotted to us and which, on my request to the Railway Station staff, would be attached to the end of the particular train I wished to travel by and detached at a particular station and shunted into a siding. The accommodation in the inspection carriage consisted of a saloon with two berths, a table and 2 chairs, various cupboards for crockery, glassware etc. and shelves for books and papers. Adjoining the saloon was the bathroom and toilet and a passageway with sliding doors led to the kitchen beyond the bathroom which also, apart from the charcoal cooking range, had berths for the two servants, and the cook who usually toured with me and cooked and served the meals. My wife usually accompanied me on tour and sometimes we met other railway officials on tour with their wives and could spend a pleasant evening together having drinks and exchanging news.
Once a month I had to accompany in my inspection carriage the "Pay Special" which had the money and the pay clerks from the Rangoon Head Office on board and stopped at each station to pay the staff. I had to witness all payments to the Engineering staff and sign the pay sheets. This special train also had wagons containing the foodstuffs and cooking oils and other household necessities which were not easily available in the remote areas in which some of the staff lived and these things would be sold to them from the train. In case of attack by dacoits (robbers) this train had to be accompanied also by armed Railway Police.
Railway Officers Inspection Carriage
While in Pyinmana, our friends Mr and Mrs Baillee of the Bombay Burma Trading Co. invited us to join them for the 1938 Christmas Camp in the jungle, which, needless to say, we were keen to do. All the necessary tents and camp equipment, together with our personal baggage, food and cooking pots were carried the twelve miles or so from the railway station at Lewe into the forest on the backs of six of their working elephants and we followed on foot. The elephants, of course, moved faster than us, so that by the time we reached the camp site in a clearing in the teak forest, our tents had been pitched by the servants with our camp beds, tables and chairs in place. In the centre of our camp site, the villagers from a nearby Burmese village had also erected a shelter from the branches and leaves of the jungle trees and this was used as our "lounge" and "dining room." Also, suitably positioned among the adjoining bushes were our temporary "washing room" and "toilets!"
We slept well in our tents and were not aware of many jungle sounds at night, as the wild animals prowled around. I presume our camp fire, which our servants kept alight while they sat and talked or slept, was a deterrent to any straying animal, but I well remember the crowing of the jungle cocks at dawn and the occasional screech of a distant peacock. The elephants which carried our tents and baggage to this camp site, had gone on with their mahouts to do their usual work of extracting the teak logs in another forest nearby.
We spent three days in the "Christmas Camp" during which we also visited other friends from Pyinmana, the Warwicks, who were also spending the Christmas holidays in another jungle camp. Jay Warwick was a District Forest Officer and head of the Forest Department College in Pyinmana.
Towards the western end of my section of the railway and not far from Burma's oil fields, there rises out of the comparatively flat landscape, the 3,500 ft. high Mount Popa, a long-extinct volcano. It is reported to be the home of the dreaded Hamadryad snakes or King Cobras, a venomous snake up to 10 or 12 ft. in length and up to 8 or 9 inches in girth. The Burmese inhabitants of the village on the mountain are alleged to live in a more or less friendly relationship with these snakes. With our friends, Mr and Mrs Edwards of the Railway Engineering Department, we decided one day when on tour together, to visit this village and see for ourselves. So having arranged some horse drawn transport for the 20 mile journey, we arrived there at midday and found a rest house on the edge of the village, where we were able to rest and enjoy the picnic lunch we had taken with us. After a short while, some Burmese men and women appeared from the village carrying two large baskets, from which they produced two large Hamadryads and let them loose on the ground in front of us. With their heads raised and hoods extended about 2 feet above the ground, they were certainly "handsome" snakes and a Burmese woman danced in front of the snakes and concluded her dance by kissing the snakes head. Obviously, they had removed its poison fangs or it would have been a kiss of death! However, we paid them for the "entertainment" and made our way back down the mountain after taking some photographs.
One of the Railway Engineers responsibilities is the water supply at the stations where it is necessary for the engine tenders to be filled, apart from water for domestic use. In most cases, water is obtained from a nearby well from which it is pumped to overhead storage tanks and piped from there to the water columns and other distribution points. It was found necessary to increase the water supply at one of the main line stations on my section of the railway line at Thazi junction and in order to find an underground source of water which could be tapped, a professional dowser was engaged.
I had heard of the science of dowsing, where a forked twig held by the dowser as he walked over the ground, dips towards the ground when he is over the spot where there is water underground, but I had never seen it done. I met the dowser, an Englishman, who had recently come out from England, presumably at the request of the Government for this work, and took him to the location where we wanted to find a source of water supply. He walked over the ground with his forked twig in front of him and I saw it suddenly bend down and then straighten up again as he walked on. It did this again as he walked on a parallel path a few feet away. He suspected that this behaviour of his twig might indicate the presence of an underground water main, so he walked again a few yards further to the left and, with his twig still bending down as he passed over the same line, we realised that there was an underground water pipe there. So we let him choose another site for his dowsing, which he did and his forked twig soon behaved in a similar manner. I was fascinated at seeing this strange phenomenon and asked him if I could try to prevent his twig from bending as he held it firmly over the spot where there was underground water. He agreed and as I held the front end of the twig to prevent it bending down, it broke in his hands and I saw that the palms of his hands had been marked by the vigorous twisting of the twig. I then asked him if the particular twig he had been using had any special properties and he said no, and, as there were many bushes near us, we soon cut some suitable Y shaped twigs from them, which, in his hands behaved in this strange manner, but not in my hands as he suggested I tried to see if I could be a dowser. Later a tube well was sunk at the site he indicated and a supply of water was found.
Shortly after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany and the Second World War against the so-called Axis Powers started, we were transferred from Pyinmana to Rangoon in October 1939, an event, needless to say, quite unconnected with events in Europe. We were, however, much concerned as to how our folks at home would fare when the bombing started, as my parents were living near Croydon and my wife's parents were near Folkestone. As it happened, later during the war when Germany resorted to sending V rockets and flying bombs over the south east of England and London, their houses were so badly damaged by these falling very close by, that while they luckily avoided being killed, they had to move to other houses.
The Engineer who succeeded me in October 1939 at Pyinmana was John Hawtrey, I in turn, took over the job of Assistant Engineer, from George Cambridge. Our house in Rangoon was No. 36 Prome Road, about a mile and a half by car to my office in the Railway Headquarters Building near Rangoon Railway Station.
The work of the Assistant Engineer in Rangoon not only involved the maintenance of all main and suburban line tracks and many siding in goods yards and the engine workshops at Insein, but he was also responsible for the repairs and maintenance of all service and residential railway houses in Rangoon and Insein, which were many. This latter work sometimes required the exercise of some diplomacy on the part of the Engineer, when the requests by the wives of some senior staff for some special work to be done as soon as possible to their houses, conflicted with other work. However, there were some compensations in living and working in the Capital as one was able to enjoy a social life as a member of the Kokine Swimming Club, the Pegu Club and the Gymkhana Club and there were also good shops, restaurants and cinemas.
Despite being fully occupied with our work and social activities, we looked anxiously for news from home of how the war was affecting them. Fortunately not much at that time for apart from the British Expeditionary Force going to France and helping to improve the French made defences along the Franco-Belgian border, there was no actual large scale fighting there. Germany was busy invading Poland and its Italian partner, Mussolini, attacked Albania and Abysinia. German U boats were active at sea, attacking merchant ships and we heard of magnetic mines laid in the seas around British coasts. Britain lost some one and a half million tons of merchant shipping in the first six months of this war, but Germany also lost some submarines. We were much cheered when we heard of the battle of the River Plate when the British Cruisers "Ajax", "Achilles" and" Exeter" put the German pocket battleship "Graf Spee" out of action and caused her to be scuttled. There was much propaganda and we heard of a Dr. Goebbels and "Lord Haw Haw" and of "Quisling" and of the German Foreign Minister Dr. Ribbentrop and, of course, the rantings of Hitler.
We were still in Rangoon throughout 1940 and depressed at the news of the German blitz on Belgium, Holland and France which, during May 1940, resulted in the retreat of our forces, their return from the beaches of Dunkirk, the collapse of French resistance and the surrender of France to Nazi Germany. The Battle of Britain was fought in the skies over Britain as Hitler and Goering tried to destroy our air defences and force Britain also to surrender when they invaded this Island!
Japan at this time was still engaged in war in China, which, with the building up of her German trained armed forces, was also a good experience for them. We did not know or suspect that she was planning for future greater conquests and that Burma and Malaya were in those plans!
Japan's invasion of China did not concern us much in Burma in 1940 nor the military occupation of Indo-China in 1941 but her continued pressure on China and the blocking of China's ports by Japan's greatly increased navy necessitated in China having to find other means of getting supplies into that country and so Chiang Kai Shek appealed to Britain to allow these supplies to enter China through its "back door" i.e. through Burma via the railway to Lashio. It was about this time, i.e. April 1941, that I was transferred from Rangoon and posted to Maymyo as Engineer in charge of the Mandalay to Lashio branch line with the special responsibility of surveying and reporting on the possibility of increasing the capacity of this single track line. This railway track which, after reaching the N. Shan Hills about 15 miles east of Mandalay, climbs for 12 miles continuously up in a 1 in 25 gradient to an altitude of 3,500' where it reaches the hill station and Burma's summer capital of Maymyo. From there, it proceeds over hilly country for another 90 miles or so to Lashio, near the Burma China border.
Maymyo itself was a very pleasant town and its cooler climate was enjoyed by all who could get away from the planes to the hills. The countryside through which the railway ran, both up to Maymyo and beyond, was lovely and spectacular, especially at the Gokteik Gorge, which is crossed by a steel trestle viaduct, 320' above the floor of the valley and 800' above the river which flows through a natural tunnel under the viaduct. In this hilly country, the scope for extending and enlarging the railway station yards in order to accommodate more or longer freight trains was somewhat limited. However, it was my job to consider the possibilities and make plans and estimates for Head Office to approve. At the same time, no doubt at some pressure on Burma and the Railway Management by Britain and China, it was decided to extend the railway from Lashio to the Chinese border and the Chinese would connect with the extension to Kunming. To carry our this project on our side of the border Sir John Rowland was appointed Chief Engineer and Cyril Kendall and John Hossack his Executive Engineers.
The reconnaissance and survey work for this project was soon started. My work necessitated my being out on tour of the railway mainly between Maymyo and the end of the line at Lashio, for about 20 days a month. Occasionally I also visited my District Engineer in Mandalay but, as Mandalay was quite a few degrees warmer than Maymyo, these visits were somewhat brief. However, I recall on one occasion having been invited to stay with our friends, the McLeans, in Mandalay where Angus McLean was head of the Agricultural College. I decided to take my wife down by road from Maymyo, a distance of about 50 miles with some hairpin bends. I still enjoyed driving my Vauxhall Saloon car, which I had taken out to Burma after my home leave in 1936. Having lunched with our Mandalay friends and left my wife with them, I started on my return drive to Maymyo. I had driven about 15 miles when I was amazed to see an enormous snake cross the road some yards ahead of the car. On both sides of the road, the jungle was quite dense and by the time I stopped the car and got out my 12 bore shotgun, it had disappeared. I had seen many snakes in Burma, especially during the rainy season when the flooding of the countryside causes many of them to come onto the dry railway embankments. I went into the jungle to see if I could see it and managed to shoot it as it started to climb a tree. With the help of my servant, who was with me, we carried it and dumped it in the boot of the car. When back in Maymyo, I had it skinned and the very prettily marked dark brown and cream coloured Python skin, about eight foot long and nearly a foot wide, was sent away to be professionally cured. We received it back from the tannery six weeks later and a local cobbler made my wife two handbags a pair of shoes and a pair of slippers.
Meanwhile, by December 1941, we were increasingly aware of the aggressive intentions and activities of Japan. For years they had been secretly building up their army and navy and their spies had no doubt full knowledge of the strength and weaknesses of their possible opponents. News of the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbour early in December astounded us but I can't say it depressed us as it meant that America would now be very much in the war. But the news was soon followed by the depressing and frightening news of Japan's invasion of Malaya and of the sinking of two British Battleships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" which Churchill had sent out to reinforce Singapore. Without an aircraft carrier to provide air cover, these ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Siam by Japanese dive bombers and torpedo carrying bombers and badly damaged and sunk with the loss of many lives. Soon after this calamity, we learned that the Japanese forces had started to invade Burma across the Siam/Burma border east of Moulmein and overcoming easily what resistance could be offered, they captured Moulmein by the end of January 1942. They had already started to bomb Rangoon, killing over 2,000 people in the first air raid and causing much panic and departure of local labour. The Government of Burma, anxious not to allow this serious and depressing news to become widespread over the whole country, resorted to "playing it down" and broadcasting the news that army reinforcements and planes were coming and the Japanese invasion would soon be stopped etc.
We, who at that time were over four hundred miles from Rangoon and from the invading Japanese, could only try to carry on with our work. I have omitted to mention so far that in 1940 all Officers of the Burma Railways had been militarized. I find I still have the parchment document signed by Sir Archibald Cochran, Governor of Burma which reads;-
"George the Sixth by the Grace of God of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India,
To our trusty and well loved Reginald Melville Ward Lowe, Greeting!
We reposing especial trust and confidence in your loyalty, courage and good conduct, do by these presents constitute and appoint you to be an Officer in our Burma Auxiliary Force, Burma Railways Battalion from the 2nd day of August one thousand nine hundred and forty.
You are therefore carefully and diligently to discharge your duty as such in the rank of Second Lieutenant or in such other rank as we may from time to time hereafter be pleased to promote or appoint you to etc."
Being militarized meant that we, while continuing our normal work, had to also attend parades and lectures on bomb disposal etc. and also attend military camp and the rifle range and familiarise ourselves with the only automatic weapon available then which was the Lewis Gun.
The Japanese forces having captured Moulmein and crossed the Salween river by the 9th February, thrust westwards, easily out manoeuvering and overcoming such resistance as our limited troops could offer. By the 20th February they had reached the Sittang river, the next major obstacle. The Sittang Railway bridge which is the only bridge over this river, is some 2,250' in length and the river flowing under the bridge is deep and fast. In order that military road vehicles could cross this bridge, the railway track had been hurriedly timbered over. The demolition with explosives of at least one of the 200' steel spans of the bridge to deter the Japanese advance had been intended by our army when they had retreated over the bridge, but an advance party of the enemy had reached the east end of the bridge, so in the confused fighting its demolition was carried out resulting in many of our troops and much equipment being lost.
Chiang Kai Shek offered to send his troops into Burma, his offer was accepted and so by the time the Japanese northern advance, still resisted by whatever British, Indian and other troops, reached Toungoo, we in Maymyo saw each day one or two train loads of Chinese troops travelling from Lashio to Mandalay and on southwards to meet the Japanese in central Burma and also towards the Shan States. The depressing news of the catastrophe at the Sittang bridge was somewhat ameliorated for us temporarily by the sight of these Chinese troops coming to help check the Japanese advance.
The air defence of Rangoon depended on the few planes of the R.A.F. and an American Volunteer Group flying Blenheim’s and Buffalos and a couple of Hurricanes. They succeeded in shooting down several Japanese planes. In Rangoon the wives of British Officials who could leave the country by ship or by train to Upper Burma did so unofficially. We were still being exhorted officially over the radio to stay put as reinforcements were soon to arrive!
Life seemed to go on much as usual in Upper Burma at this time. My wife was still with me in Maymyo and used to meet at the Maymyo Club the wives of other officials and to help the war effort these ladies would also meet at Government House to make whatever garments were said to be required by the troops!
As the weather in Maymyo got colder at the end of the year, I found that I was gradually seizing in my joints, a sort of rheumatism and also some recurrence of the Amoebic Dysentery which I had some years earlier. The stiffness in my hip and knee joints at one stage got so severe that I could only walk slowly and with the help of two walking sticks. The local railway doctor had a sample of my blood analysed and told me that the stiffness was possibly caused by Amoebic cysts, due to my not having had a proper course of treatment some years earlier. Although due for some home leave, it was not possible to consider that now that the Japanese thrust into Burma was continuing, despite desperate efforts to stop it. To say that Burma was lacking the armaments is an understatement. I doubt if there was even an anti-aircraft gun in the country.
In Maymyo we had dummy gun emplacements with 5" diameter bamboos to simulate guns pointing up into the sky. I don't know who the military authorities thought they were bluffing but it certainly wasn't the Japanese, who, no doubt, were kept well informed by Burmese "fifth column" activity.
Despite the frequently broadcast Government exhortations to all Officials to remain at their posts and carry on as usual as military reinforcements were coming, the thoughts of most non-Burmese Officials whose wives were still with then, were concerned with plans to get the wives and their children out of Burma and with as little publicity as possible.
During February 1942, as the Japanese advance westward neared Rangoon, there was a gradual deterioration of the position, despite General Wavell being saddled with the responsibility of defending Burma and General Alexander also coming to Rangoon. The first official civilian evacuation of Rangoon started by the 20th February and the wives of many of our Burma Railway Headquarters staff left Rangoon either by ship where possible across to India or by car or train to Upper Burma. Mrs Procter, wife of our Chief Engineer, with her two daughters and Mrs Milne, wife of our traffic Manager, with her son and daughter were among the railway wives and children who came up to Maymyo. The final evacuation of Rangoon accompanied by the explosions as the "last ditchers" carried out the demolition of the power house and the docks and the oil refineries to deny these facilities to the enemy, took place on the 6th March.
As the" last ditchers," which included some Railway Officials, made their way northwards from Rangoon, they were lucky to get through the Japanese forces making their way towards Rangoon. Any escape from Burma from the port of Rangoon was now impossible so on the arrival in Maymyo early in March of the husbands of Mrs Procter (or Proctor) and Mrs Milne it was decided that their possible escape route was to go as far as possible by steamer up the Chindwin river to Kalewa and with the many other evacuees, to make their way as best they could by cart tracks and jungle paths for over 200 miles over the Chin Hills to Chittagong and thence by railway to Calcutta. This was to be no picnic and one had serious doubts that these ladies and their children could survive many days of walking up 8000' high hills carrying their own food supplies and the minimum of kit. However, as the only alternative was to stay and be killed or captured there was literally no choice.
As a first step Mrs Procter, Mrs Milne and the children were taken by train from Maymyo to Ywataung via Mandalay and the Ava bridge, where they were joined by Mrs Cant, the wife of another railway Engineer. I took my wife by car from Maymyo to join them at Ywataung and we all continued by train to Monywa on the Chindwin river, where the party boarded the already overfull river paddle steamer.
Although this happened fifty years ago i.e. March 1942, I shall never forget that evening when we arrived at the river port of Monywa and saw this very full steamer, which our wives and the children were to board. They were allocated a space on the top uncovered deck of the ship with no furniture or facilities. It was soon dark and the ship's electric lights were switched on. I don't think any of us had much to say and it was hard to pretend it was going to be a picnic. As the ship was about to leave to go up river, we said our goodbyes and the three of us; Eric Milne, Ernest Procter and myself, made our way by train back to Ywataung, from where, by car the next morning, I drove back to Maymyo. Although we had some doubts about ever seeing our wives again, we certainly did not voice these doubts.
About a month or more previous to this, while life in Rangoon was fairly normal and the banks were functioning, my wife and I had decided that if she had to leave and go to India we should make some arrangements for her to have some money. So we instructed our bank in Rangoon (Grindlays) to transfer some money from our account to their Calcutta branch and open an account there for my wife. I also sent them a photograph of her so that they could recognise her if and when she arrived.
A couple of days after my return to Maymyo, I was surprised to get a message from Messrs. Procter and Milne informing me that the ship on which our wives had left Monywa that evening, had returned with them, as the water level in the Chindwin had dropped so low, it being the dry season, that the ship could not get more than 60 or so miles up river without going aground. Also, owing to its carrying more than double its normal capacity of passengers, it had exhausted its supply of drinking water. It seemed we were now back to square one and some other means had to be found to get the wives and children out of Burma.
Fortunately a few days later, we learned that some army Dakota planes were flying some supplies from India into Shwebo, so as the wives were not far from Shwebo, they were able to get a flight to Chittagong. Needless to say, we were all much relieved that this had happened and they had been spared that long and arduous trek.
About this time, my friend Norman McAllister, Railway District Engineer at Mandalay, returned from India where he had taken his very ill wife to a sanatorium. He came up to keep me company, both of us now being without our wives. We went on tour together for a while in our respective inspection saloon carriages to carry out our jobs, which by then were becoming more difficult, as some of the work force, being Indian, were leaving to try to get back to India. This loss of labour was accelerated when the Japanese planes started to drop bombs on Mandalay and Maymyo. There was a big air raid on Mandalay early in April in which very many were killed and many houses set on fire. It must have been about the same time that three Japanese bombers flew, unopposed, over us in Maymyo and dropped some bombs on us. It was a very windy day, I remember, and I had walked down to the railway station to meet the morning mail train from Mandalay which arrived at midday. Just before the train arrived, the Japanese planes came and dropped their anti-personnel bombs, mostly between the station and the town. Some bombs also fell in the grounds of Government House. When I drove into the town after the raid, I saw that a few houses had been damaged and some people and animals killed. Another smaller air raid occurred on the morning of my birthday, 8th April, a few days later. The main effect of these air raids was the exodus from the town of the labour force and many shopkeepers.
Conditions generally during April 1942 seemed to be gradually getting chaotic. Despite the help of the Chinese troops, the Japanese advance with their air superiority continued. Our postal and telegraphic services were also deteriorating and it was impossible for me to know whether or not my wife had got to India and where in India. She had had to leave behind almost all her clothes and personal possessions, which included the wedding present of a Moroccan leather bound beauty and jewel case, with its many silver fittings which I had bought in Harrods in London in 1936 and which she didn't want to lose, I had it packed and addressed to her care of Grindlays Bank. There was a slim hope of its getting to her if I could get it to the Chinese Consul in Lashio, who I had previously contacted, as there seemed to be a possibility that my eventual exit from Burma might have to be towards China if I happened to be on that side of the point where the Japanese troops cut the Burma/China road. The Chinese Consul was very pleasant and helpful and kindly gave me a permit, written in Chinese except for my name, to enter China if I had to. I still have this document. As regards the parcel which I hoped to get to India, I do not know what eventually happened, as with all our furniture and personal possessions, we never saw them again.
Copy of the letter from the Chinese Consul in Lashio, addressed to A.P. Lui Esq., C.N.A.C. Lashio given to me in March 1942 in case I needed the help of the Chinese National Airways Company to leave Burma. It so happened, that I was eventually flown out from Myitkyina in May 1942 by a C.N.A.C. plane.
Towards the latter half of April, when much of the lower half of Burma was in the hands of the Japanese forces and our forces, together with the Chinese, were desperately fighting actions, every effort was being made by the Railway Staff to get the trains with evacuees into Upper Burma. One senior member of our Traffic Department, C.P. Brewitt, known to us as Pat Brewitt, who had won the Military Cross in the 1914/18 war and was now militarised with the rank of Lt.-Colonel, was very active in organising this withdrawal of railway personnel.
Meanwhile up in Maymyo, a regular army Colonel arrived and informed me that he required office accommodation and as the office next to mine was vacant I suggested he could use that, which he did. I don't know what his particular function was, but perhaps he was part of the staff of General Alexander, who was, I believe, staying at about this time with the Governor of Burma at Government House in Maymyo. As the visit would have been secret, I may have guessed wrongly. However, the Colonel and I used to have conversations about the general state of affairs in Burma and he was interested in our problems on the railway.
As it was necessary to see the progress on railway engineering work between Maymyo and Lashio, I went on tour again, my inspection carriage was attached to the morning Up train towards Lashio. When the train arrived at a station about half way to Lashio (I think it was Hsipaw) I was told by a Field Security Officer there that a column of the Japanese Army which was making its way up the valley east of the Shan Hills was approaching this part of the railway (with the intention, no doubt, of cutting off the "back door" to China.) and I was warned that if I went on to Lashio there was a chance of my not being able to return to Maymyo, to say the least about it! I telephoned my office in Maymyo and managed to get in contact with Colonel X and repeated to him what I'd been told. "Don't necessarily believe the story," the Colonel said. "There are so many false rumours put about by the Burmese fifth column to scare the working people as they want them to leave their jobs and thus cause more chaos." I continued my journey to Lashio and warned the railway staff of the possible approach of the Japanese and as we had no army here to resist any Japanese attack it was up to them to decide what action to take. I returned to Maymyo about two days later and went to see the Colonel, unfortunately he was out. Meanwhile, I learned that the Railway District Loco. Officer, Mr Hadfield had gone to Lashio to immobilize the railway engines thereby removing their connecting side rods in case the Japanese would later want to make use of them.
Whether or not there was any truth in the rumour that the Japanese forces were about to cut the Burma/China road, we were not sure, but from now the behaviour of some of the Chinese troops and their Commanders forced us to conclude that they believed it to be true. Afraid that their retreat into China would be blocked before Lashio, they regarded our efforts at running trains to help evacuees to get westwards towards India, as sabotaging their war effort and letting them down. It was not unusual now to see Chinese soldiers with their rifles in the engine cabs and the engine drivers said they were being threatened, so much so that some drivers refused to drive trains. The language difficulties, no doubt, caused much misunderstanding, as we could neither speak or understand Chinese and the Chinese Officers's knowledge of English was very limited. I remember one night towards the end of April, when I was informed that a number of Chinese solders, with their Commanding Officers were at the Maymyo station and were insisting on a train being provided to take then to Lashio. Although the necessary railway carriages were available, the Station Master could not find any engine drivers willing to drive the train, so he asked me to see if I could persuade any driver to do so. I spent a couple of hours visiting many drivers' homes and trying to get an engine crew, but was unsuccessful and told the Chinese Officers so.
They then indicated that if we could let them have a particular engine, they would, from their own soldiers, find a crew. They were obviously desperate to get going towards China. There happened to be two engines under steam in the engine shed, so they chose one of them and a Chinese engine crew showed us that they knew how to work the engine. It was past midnight by now and we were not sorry to see them couple the engine onto the carriages with their soldiers. Before the train left, however, we had to warn them that as it was "single line working" they must get a "line clear" token before leaving a station. They said they understood this. So we were much relieved to see their train depart into the night, or early morning. The next morning we heard there had been a collision between two trains at a station about ten miles east of Maymyo. So I and some other railway officials went by car to this station and found that our Chinese driven train had run into a train coming to Maymyo, as it was standing on the line at the station. Attached behind the front engine of the stationary train was an inspection saloon carriage with Mr Hadfield, the District Locomotive Officer, asleep at the time of the collision. His carriage had been very badly damaged and he was lucky to have escaped from it with some cuts and bruises. He could have been killed! We took him on to Maymyo by car and he returned later to his headquarters at Mandalay. Of the Chinese troops who were in the train from Maymyo there was no sign, as they had taken the engine which was at the back of the stationary train, together with some carriages and had driven on leaving this chaos behind them. Whether they eventually arrived at Lashio without further mishaps, I did not know or care, as we had other problems on our minds.
One of the immediate and urgent problems was to provide extra tracks at Maymyo to accommodate the railway wagons arriving with military stores from Rangoon to prevent these falling into the hands of the Japanese. These covered and locked wagons contained ammunition and army rations. We soon had as many as possible Permanent Way gangs working on this and I went to the site with McAllister to see how the job was progressing. It was a somewhat damp morning with occasional light showers. It was about 11 a.m. which seemed to be the time that the Japanese bombers had previously dropped some bombs on Maymyo. We hadn't been long on the site before there was the sound of planes approaching, which made the gang-men rather jittery and showing signs of downing tools and leaving. Although we did not know whether we were about to be bombed, we had to pretend otherwise and try to assure the men to continue working. As one of the workmen near me was hesitating about going on working, I was annoyed and grabbed at the tool he had in his hands, which was a new crowbar and was wet and slipped through my fingers, falling with its sharp chisel pointed end on my right foot, going through the leather of my show and into my foot, cutting a one inch long gash. McAllister had to drive me to the railway dispensary to have the cut stitched and dressed. I was annoyed with myself at adding, especially at this time, another handicap to my already limited mobility.
It was daily becoming more obvious from the news reaching us that the Japanese advance northwards was continuing, despite the resistance being offered by ours and the Chinese troops. The harassment continued of some of our railway staff by some of the Chinese soldiers, who objected to our trains going westwards from Maymyo towards Mandalay and Upper Burma while they themselves wanted to go eastwards to China. This resulted in our having to keep secret the intended movements of rail traffic and the times of departure of any evacuee trains down the hills towards Mandalay.
The town of Maymyo was by now becoming more deserted. Many local shops were closed and shuttered and the daily food supplies in the bazaar were less. By the end of April, it was obvious that we and the last of the evacuees would also have to leave as the army headquarters staff there were already moving out by road and let it be known to us that they required our cars if we were likely to be leaving them behind us as we would be going by rail. Before parting with my Vauxhall car to the army, I drove to the general post office in the town and found it deserted I suspect it had already been looted as the floor was covered with undelivered letters and various post office and telegram forms. I then went on and handed my car over to the army Major who was taking over this transport. Money didn't seem to be important by this time, as if we were able to escape with our lives, we would be leaving Burma with the very minimum of clothes and personal belongings and leaving behind a houseful of furniture etc. and in many cases a well stocked larder.
The evacuee train I was accompanying was to leave Maymyo in the late afternoon on a certain day. This news being kept from Chinese ears - as it was hoped to avoid any interference. In due course, my inspection carriage, with two of my servants who usually accompanied me, was attached to this train and we left Maymyo as it was getting dark. We hadn't been travelling for more than a couple of hours when our train had to stop at a station to cross another train coming from Mandalay. There were some Chinese troops with their Officers on this up train and they held up our train arguing with our engine crew and traffic staff and wanting our train to return to Maymyo as there were more Chinese troops there wanting rail transport towards China. We eventually seemed to convince them that if we were allowed to proceed to Mandalay, our train could then return empty for their use, and the sooner the better. They, somewhat reluctantly, let us go. Perhaps they didn't really believe us and if so they were not wrong as it was unlikely with the increasing chaotic state of affairs, that our train would return. Our Beyer-Garrett locomotive continued slowly down the 1 in 25 slope, as we dropped from over 3,000' to the plains, we were not stopped again but by then it was early morning and as the engine had been in steam for many hours, the driver was becoming concerned at the low water level in the two tenders. The stations we were passing through were not those provided with a water supply. So the driver had to stop the train so that the engine was alongside a small pool of water near the track and with the help of men travelling on the train and with as many buckets as could be found, several bucket-fulls of water were poured into the tenders and we then continued our journey. As we approached Mandalay, it was about 4 a.m. and still rather dark, but the sky was lit up with the fires burning in Mandalay and in an ammunition depot a few miles away, where our army was destroying our supplies of ammunition which could not be moved elsewhere.
Our train was held up for a long time before we could get into Myohaung Junction, just south of Mandalay, as the station yard there was already congested with other trains with evacuees from central and south Burma. I guess I must have fallen asleep in my carriage about now, having been awake all night, for the next thing I remember was the noise of our train passing over the nearly three quarter mile long Ava Bridge and on for another four miles to Ywataung where we halted. It was now dawn and as I got out of my carriage and walked onto the station platform I remembered that this place was the headquarters of my first railway district in Burma, to which I was posted in 1928 and shared a house there with George Cambridge, the other young Assistant Engineer, who, like myself, had just joined the Burma Railway. I knew this place well, as I had lived there again about four years later when I was appointed to the Ava Bridge Construction and shared a house with Cyril Kendall, the other Assistant Engineer on this project, until the contractors had completed the timber-built house I was to live in. As these thoughts passed through my mind, I heard a rumbling noise in the distance which seemed to sound like some aircraft. Some other people who had been in the station building also came out wondering if the Japanese were about to bomb our train. Just then, some army personnel joined us and told us the noise we were hearing was made by our army tanks retreating over the Ava Bridge before the army sappers, who had fixed explosives on one of the steel spans which was about to be blown up to delay the Japanese. I then met some other Railway Officers one of which was Sir John Rowland, Chief Engineer of the project for extension of the track to the Chinese border, who had motored down from Lashio; Eric Milne, Traffic Manager; William Air and John Hossack, Senior Engineers and Mr Manley who had been a Government Inspector of Railways. As some other trains with evacuees were still arriving and our train, to which the inspection saloon carriage for Eric Milne and party was being attached, was not yet ready to leave to proceed further north, we all decided to wait in the station refreshment room. Whilst doing so, an army sergeant came in and asked whose new Morris Oxford saloon car was outside. It was Rowland's car so he said to the sergeant "I shan't be needing it anymore, so if you want it, you can have it in exchange for a bottle of whisky." The soldier disappeared for a few minutes and was back again with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky, which he gave to Sir John, who handed over the keys of his car in exchange. We all then shared his bottle of whisky as he announced that it was his 60th birthday.
Our train was now ready to leave so we all boarded our inspection carriages and proceeded on the 320 mile journey to Myitkyina, the northern most terminal of the railway. I had been travelling over ground I was familiar with, having been the Engineer here in 1928-29, which I have described earlier. On this journey which passed through Naba Junction station, about half way to Myitkyina, I met my friend George Cambridge and spent a few minutes chatting to him. He was trying to get some workmen to carry out repairs to a railway bridge. He told me that he had managed to get his wife Jeanette out of Burma with the help of his brother Jack, who was Chief Engineer of the East India Railway whose headquarters were in Calcutta, and wanted to know if I had also succeeded in getting my wife, Marjory, out. I told him that she had flown out from Shwebo to Chittagong but owing to lack of communications I wasn't sure.
When we arrived at Myitkyina, the place from which no further rail or road travel was available and where many evacuees had gathered in large numbers, including Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, the then Governor and his lady and his ADC's who were staying, I believe, in a recently built large house belonging to Steel Brothers. Our inspection carriages were detached and parked in a siding. I expect that the thoughts of all of us now were "where do we go from here?" There was really no choice. Although there was an airstrip which had been made in the jungle a few miles from the town, there were no civilian or military aircraft there. We spent the next two or three days preparing ourselves for the ordeal of walking out to the border of Assam, a distance "as the crow flies" of some 200 miles. Not being crows, we would have to walk over the Kumon and Naga Hills, with ridges up to and over ten thousand feet in height and also cross some rivers. We could only take raincoats and perhaps a change of cotton clothes and the minimum of food which one could carry in one's haversack, which would have to sustain one for several days. We knew it was not going to be a picnic. On the other hand, we seemed to pretend that we could survive it although some of us, including myself, were not as physically fit as we would like to be. My age then was 37 and so I was the youngest of our party. Sir John Rowland was 60, Eric Milne, John Hossack and Willie Air, in their late 40's or early 50's and so on. As regards our food supplies at this time, I was fortunate in having acquired some cases of tinned army rations before leaving Maymyo so was able to consume some of these and also pack the lighter items such as rice and biscuits and chocolate slabs for the walkout. I remember that it was decided that we must all be ready to start the trek out of Myitkyina early on, I think, the next morning, the 3rd May 1942. We spent that last evening in the inspection saloon carriage that Rowland, Milne, Hossack and Air were living in, my own carriage being a few yards away. We were having our drinks and chatting and also helping to remove the hundreds of stamps from the stamp albums belonging to Sir John, who had a very valuable stamp collection and packing the stamps into a biscuit tin which he hoped to seal from the damp and carry out of Burma. We retired fairly early to bed that night but I don't think I slept much. Very early in the morning, I heard someone calling me so I got up and found it was Rowland who said to me "I've just had a message from the Chinese National Airways Company (C.N.A.C.) saying that they are sending a plane to Myitkyina to take me to India. I want you and also Hossack and Air to get on that plane." I said to him "and aren't you going on this plane?" "No." He replied. "I'll walk out with the others, you are not fit enough for the walk." One didn't argue with Sir John, he was a tough individual.
So John Hossack, Willie Air and myself got some transport to get us to the airstrip and when we got there a Chinese Dakota-type plane was being loaded up with a lot of luggage and it was then boarded by the Governor and Lady Dorman-Smith and other Government House staff and away the plane went! So we went back to Myitkyina station. When Rowland saw us back he said "What the devil have you come back for?" We told him what had happened, his remarks were far from complimentary about the Governor taking a plane that was apparently meant for him. However, a couple of hours later Willie Air came to my carriage and said to me, "Come along we have to go again to the airfield. Sir John has been informed that another Chinese plane is coming and we must get on it." Sir John was probably wrong in thinking that the plane the Governor's party used was intended for him. However, once again, having given the servants we were leaving behind some money to enable them to make their way back to their Burmese families, we got to the airfield and eventually boarded a Chinese plane with many other evacuees. The plane had been stripped of its usual seats to make room for more passengers, so we sat on metal benches fixed along the sides of the plane and some stood or sat on the floor with the few possessions they were hoping to take to India with them. There were no air hostesses, nor were we told to "fasten our seat belts" as there were none.
Although very full, which made one wonder if we would ever get airborne, we did take off and climb to fly over the hills and dense forests for about an hour or so and landed on an airfield in the north east corner of Assam at a place named Dinjan. It was, I think, a sort of army staging post. We were able to get a meal in the canteen there. I parted company here with Air and Hossack as I was intending to make my way by railway to Calcutta, while they were going, by air if possible, to Delhi, as Mr Air was to let the Indian Government know that Sir John and party were walking out from Myitkyina and may require some help should they be held by by the rainy season. It so happened later that this party was held up for over a month in the jungle by heavy rain and were without food. Arrangements had to be made for food to be dropped by air to them and for the Assam tea planters to go in with elephants to meet them and bring them into India. We only learned of this later when we knew they had arrived and were recovering from their ordeal. Unfortunately, one of that party, a fellow railway Engineer, Cyril Kendall, who I knew well, had contracted cerebral malaria on that awful journey and died in India shortly after arriving. His young widow Dulcie with a very young son Colin, later left India by ship, only to be torpedoed by a German submarine in the Atlantic Ocean and had to spend several days at sea with her child in an open ship's lifeboat before landing at the island of Saint Helena. This thrilling story has been told already by Ralph Barker in his book entitled "Good Night, Sorry to Sink You." I am glad to say that Dulcie, now a white haired old lady, and her son Colin, now a 50 year old married man with a family, survived the ordeal and we see them sometimes as they live near us.
Now to return to my own further adventures as an evacuee from Burma in May 1942. I remember the long rail journey to Calcutta, although the distance is about 500 miles, the actual railway distance owing to the Ganges and Bramaputra rivers and their 200 mile wide delta, is somewhat longer. I arrived eventually at Howrah station and took a taxi to a hotel - I think it was the Grand Hotel - and after tidying myself up, I went to the offices of the East Indian Railway, where I was able to find out that my wife and Mrs Milne with her 13 year old daughter Molly and 11 year old son Robin had gone on to Bombay and had left a note for me with a Bombay address. I was able to send a telegram to my wife informing her that I was in Calcutta and expected to arrive in Bombay 2 days later, as that was the time it took for the 1,000 mile journey across the middle of India. My wife met me as the train arrived at Victoria Terminal and we took a taxi to the hotel on Marine Drive where she was staying. We were delighted to be together again. Although we had only been parted for a couple of months it seemed longer as there had been a time when it was not certain that we would meet again.
She told me she had been well looked after by the people in Calcutta and had had no difficulty in being recognised by the bank manager. She had also been well looked after since arriving in Bombay with Doris Milne and her children as her husband's cousins who were residents and manager of cotton mills there. They kindly welcomed them into their home and arranged for my wife to stay with a neighbour who happened to be the secretary of the Byculla Club. This was one of Bombay's large, private residential clubs, standing in its own spacious grounds with tennis courts and other sports facilities. The secretary kindly arranged for my wife and myself to be temporary members and also to have a room and bathroom in the club building.
My first priority was to buy some clothes, having come out of Burma with little more than the clothes we were wearing. We were somewhat taken aback when we learned that in order to dine in the club dining room, it was essential to wear a dinner jacket in my case and an evening dress for my wife. We therefore had to include these in our purchases. The war had not by then caused any change in the old customs of the Raj in India! My next priority was to see a doctor and get treatment or my long-neglected or rather not properly treated Amoebic Dysentery. I went to see the Chief Medical Officer of the G.I.P. Railway, (Great Indian Peninsula Railway) in Bombay and he kindly carried out some tests and prescribed a course of treatment which I underwent and was in much better physical condition in about three weeks. The doctor, (I think his name was Dr. Rushforth) suggested, to complete my treatment, we should go for a month or so to an Indian Hill station, like Ooticamund at about 6,000 feet up in the Nilgiri Hulls. Meanwhile, whilst in Bombay we met some of our Burma friends, evacuees like ourselves and we also heard from Doris Milne, the news that the Indian Government had arranged for Sir John Rowland's party, which included her husband Eric Milne, to be rescued from the jungles east of Assam, where their "walk out" had been held up by the rains.
My wife and I had now decided to take the doctor's advice and proceed to the south Indian hill resort of Ooticamund or "Ooty" as it was known to many Britishers. Being a railway officer, I was allowed a free pass for travel. We journeyed south to Bangalore as we knew that some Burma friends of ours had gone there as also we knew of other friends from Burma who had gone to hill stations in the north of India. In Bangalore, we stayed a few days in a hotel and contacted our friends the Cant's and Norman McAllister, before going on by train to Ooty where we stayed at the Willingdon Hotel and enjoyed our walks in this rather English looking town with its parks and botanical gardens and its many pine and eucalyptus trees. Our friends, Joe and Phyllis Cant and Norman McAllister also came up to Ooty while we were there and with them we spent a few hours one morning in the Ooty club, where the club secretary kindly welcomed us and allowed Joe Cant and myself to have a game of snooker in the billiard room on the billiard table where we were told the game of snooker was first played many years earlier. We also visited Coonoor, a town just below Ooty where we walked in the lovely Simms Park and talked of our experiences in getting out of Burma which by now was occupied by the Japanese.
While staying in Ooty, I was aware of a considerable improvement in my general condition and wrote to our friends the Cambridge's, who we learnt were staying in the north India hill station of Nainital. After a couple of weeks I received a 12 page letter from George Cambridge, describing his experiences in the last days of working and walking out of Burma. The following is a condensed quote from his long letter which I still have with me. He addresses me by my nickname (in Burma) of "Tim."
"Brookhill, Nainital, 21.6.42
My Dear Tim,
It was grand to get your letter and to know that you were feeling better now that you had received proper medical attention and were able to have a rest without thinking of air raids and the possibility of being trapped in Burma. The last few days of the British occupation of Burma was certainly pathetic. Enough said on that score. I have to be careful about what I say. When Jeanette left Burma, I wrote to my brother in Delhi to thank him for what he had done in helping Jeanette and in that letter I let myself go about the chaotic state of affairs in Burma in those last days. He got the letter cut to pieces by the censor and I heard yesterday from Henry Palmer that extracts from my letter had been printed and circulated to various powers-that-be. I believe that H.E. the Governor of Burma also got a copy! Yours truly will have to watch his step as one day he might find himself behind bars!
Things moved rapidly after I saw you at Naba and we had a terrible time trying to get the evacuee ambulance and retreating army trains through. I had to abandon the work on the bridge south of Naba and try to assist the traffic department in Naba station yard, which was getting congested with trains. One moment I was trying to get trains shunted and the next also trying to assure the Chinese troops who were retreating, that their train would be given preference. To make matters worse, a train going up the gradient north of Naba parted and the back portion ran back into the station yard and collided with an evacuee train, killing many of the people in these trains and scattering the carriages and wagons all over the place. You would get some idea of the smash when I tell you that of the six lines in Naba yard, only the station line was clear of the debris. You could hear the roar of this runaway part of the train sometime before the crash and we thought it was going to be a Jap. air raid. It happened at about midnight. It was impossible to remove the wreckage as there were no cranes available and no staff to supervise the work. Fortunately, there were a couple of doctors present who were able to attend to the injured and to give Morphia injections to the dying. We managed, however, the next morning to clear the second line and as things were generally becoming impossible, Pat Brewitt and Gawthorne decided to go on to Myitkyina to see the Governor and also to enquire about the Hukawng route out of Burma from Mogaung. Brewitt had an interview with H.E. who told him that we must carry on and that everyone could not expect to get out of Burma.
Meanwhile, more trains with evacuees and with Chinese troops kept trying to move northwards, away from the advancing Jap. army and there were two or more trains in every station and the Chinese being very aggressive and threatening when held up. In the early hours of the fourth morning, Providence took a hand. There was a collision between two trains in a cutting between Pinwe and Mawlu which completely blocked the line. So as nothing more could be done to get trains moving, it was decided that we must now prepare ourselves for a "walkout" towards India. But the Chinese troops who were some 20,000 strong in trains south of Naba would not agree to our going and were threatening to shoot Pat Brewitt. They spent the night arguing with the Chinese Commander and early in the morning Vanderbeek took the Chinese Commander Sung for a walk along the line and showed him the chaotic condition of things, whereupon Sung agreed that his troops would have to walk the rest of the way to Myitkyina from where they could continue into China.
Gawthorne, who had returned from Mogaung said the Hukawng route to India from there was very difficult and that the route from Indaw was easier. I was told to go to Indaw where some other railway officers were. So I joined Vanderbeek, Manifold, Downing, McAllister, Cotton and many others there and helped them with transporting rations into the jungle in case the Japanese bombed Indaw. That evening, we stopped at the ration dump about 8 miles from Indaw and settled down to our first night's sleep on the ground in the open after eating some bully beef from a tin and without any bread or biscuits. At about 8 p.m. Arthur Dunn arrived and about midnight someone drove up in a lorry to collect a lad (whose name I can't remember) who could speak Chinese as we heard that Brewitt was still being held in Indaw by the Chinese. At 2 p.m. we were woken up and told to get moving, each one carrying what rations he could for the rest of the trek. So at crack of dawn, after some tea and biscuits and with our packs on our backs, we set off and 12 miles further on we stopped for a rest and "breakfast." We had left some cars at Indaw including my car, for those still being detained by the Chinese.
After a rest, away from the road, we decided to push on but had not gone far when we met Howard returning by car to Indaw to bring up more rations. He told us that Brewitt and some others had managed to get away from Indaw and had used the cars to get to a place 24 miles from Indaw. I was annoyed to learn that they had overtaken us, in my car, and had left me to get here on my flat feet! The next morning, Henry Palmer saw to it that we used the cars to get us to the next camp site which was 9 miles further on. Here we stayed and spent the night as the rations did not arrive until the evening. The next morning after some breakfast, Brewitt, Proctor, Johnson and Carrier went on by car to find the next possible camp site, which they did at a place called Sinbon at mile 44. From here, the condition of the road deteriorated and became little more than a cart track. It was also very steep in places and with sharp hairpin bends. Our party now consisted of Gawthorne, Lee, McAllister, Manifold, Cotton, Downing, Coward, Vanderbeek, Palmer and myself. There were, of course, many other Indian and Anglo-Indian evacuees struggling to walk out - there were thousands of them. It was pathetic to see them, old men, women hardly able to walk carrying babies. One poor soul, an Anglo-Indian, had discarded her shoes and wore army socks on her feet over which she had tied some cloths to form pads. She was carrying a baby and leading by the hand a toddler and another young child holding onto her shirt. The look of misery on her face nearly broke my heart and I longed to be able to help her. The going was becoming more difficult and it was after midday when we got to Pyinbon.
Henry Palmer by this time was feeling unwell and had a temperature of 105 degrees. Dr. Carrier examined him and said he had malaria and gave him an injection. He was too ill to go on. Vanderbeek and I decided to stay with him. Palmer had to lie down and he tossed and turned all that day and night. The next morning, his temperature was down but he was too weak to walk. I managed to find an old chair to which we tied a bamboo on each side so that he could be carried. Brewitt gave us some money so that we could pay the collies to carry him. By then it was about 7.30 a.m. when we set off through the jungle and up a hill. Four coolies at a time carrying Palmer in the chair. By 11 o'clock, we had done 8 miles and stopped for a rest and some food before resuming our walk, still uphill. It took us 2 and a half hours to do the next 3 miles so we camped for the night. Palmer still had a temperature. The next day the going was even more difficult but we stuck it out and managed to do about 18 miles before camping in some fields on the hillside where we found Gawthorne and some others. The next day the going was easier as we were descending into the Uyu valley. We got to the village of Maingkaing about 5 o'clock and found a notice posted on a tree telling us not to go to Homalin as the route from there would be very difficult if the rains started. It directed us to go to Tonki some 30 miles south of Homalin. We went on another 3 miles alongside the Uyu river.
The next day, the 11th day since leaving Indaw, we got to a village named Nangpanaung where we got hold of a guide and also managed to have a bamboo raft built during that night. We were also able to have a swim in the river and partake of a decent meal of boiled chicken and rice in the guide's hut. The 12th morning saw us on the raft, which was about 60 feet long and 12 feet wide, with the coolies and the boatmen manoeuvring the raft and ourselves, about 50 in all, we made good speed with the strong current down the river to Tonki where we camped for the night. At crack of dawn next morning, our guide led us through the jungle over the very broken country and after we walked about 3 miles, he said we were now in India. The guide left us here and we paid him. The path from here was all uphill and we must have climbed to about 3,000 feet before we started to drop into the Khadan valley. We spent that night here near a small stream and consumed our second tin of bully beef with some chupatties. The 13th morning saw us, as usual, ready to walk at the first sign of light and soon we were climbing up a very steep path. We were by now obviously well ahead of the hundreds of other evacuees as there was no sign of them.
About two hours of climbing, we were exhausted when we reached the summit and threw ourselves down and had a good rest. Fortunately for us, the rainy season had not yet started. The going from here was fairly easy and by 10 a.m. we came too the first Naga vllage, Kanpat, and were able to buy some chickens. Vanderbeek wanted to camp here for breakfast but Palmer and myself thought it too early to stop so we all moved on and in another mile or so, came to a better road and we made good progress for the next five miles down into a valley and a good, clear stream in which we had a swim while the chickens and rice were being cooked for our breakfast. Immediately after breakfast we set off again up a path which zig-zagged up the side of a hill to a height of 2,500 feet after which the path was fairly level and by 6 p.m. we got to another Naga village. Here we found a young Naga lad who had been in a mission school and knew a little English. He fixed us up in a hut and got us chickens and eggs. We were glad to be under cover as it was a bit cold. The next morning we were a bit late in starting and the going got rough and the path narrow as we descended the hill. A supply and transport party with mules taking rations to the evacuees had to give up as they lost seven mules with their loads as they fell down the hill.
We stopped at a village named Molin, where there was a small hut for Indian officials on tour, but as it was already occupied, we camped out in the open although it looked like rain. The villagers brought us chickens and potatoes so we cooked and ate a good meal. They also brought us straw to put under our ground sheets and we thought we would have a more comfortable night but we didn't as the straw seemed to be full of fleas, which troubled us all night. The next morning, we were on our last lap of 12 miles to Yarripol from where we were told we could get motor transport but when we got there we found we had to walk another 4 miles. I had strained a muscle in my leg in going downhill and felt I couldn't go on. After a while, an army truck came along with some officers in it and I and some others got a lift to the next camp which was full of British army men who had also walked out via Tamu. The rain had made the place ankle deep in mud and slush and the only food I got that evening was a spoonful of tinned apricots and a mug of tea. While I was looking around for some dry spot where I could spend the night, I came across a Major Balding, who kindly offered to share his ground sheets with me, so we slept on and under ground sheets as it continued to rain. I awoke next morning stiff and with a chill in my tummy. We had by now done 326 miles of which some 240 was done on my flat feet.
We stayed four days in this camp while the other Burma Railway Officers caught up with us. For our last trip, 31 of us were crammed into a six wheeled army truck with an Indian driver who had only been driving this vehicle for two weeks. I had never been on such a winding road before. We climbed over 5,000 feet and as the road often had a sheer drop of several hundred feet at it edge and there were some smashed up lorries lying down below, we often thought we would be joining them. However, we eventually got to the Manipur road and to a proper camp where we got our first good meal.
Looking back on the trek, it doesn't seem to have been too bad although we had come over several ranges of hills up to 3,000 feet and one over 5,000 feet high. We were fortunate in being able to walk well and to get ahead of the hundreds of other evacuees. I expect you know that Wopham of our Loco. Department died on the walkout. I hear that many other folk also died. Some of our group now went down with fever and/or dysentery. As far as I know, all the railway officers have got out of Burma except Kendall, Milne, Rowland and Manley. A search party was sent out from Assam for them. I heard Rowland intended staying at Fort Hertz if the rainy season started before they got there.
As to what is going to happen to us now we are in India, I'm afraid I don't know. I hear that a board consisting of Proctor, Johnson, Brewitt and Parker is being formed to decide what is to be done. As far as I can gather they want all Burma Railway Officers and subordinates to be formed into army operational units, earmarked for returning to Burma as that country is recaptured. The military will, meanwhile, pay our wages.
Williy Air was here a few days ago to collect his wife and take her to Simla. Norman Johnson, Palmer, Dunn, Downing, Stuart and Claudius are also here. Nainital is not too bad but everything is very expensive. However, we must not grumble.
Well Tim, I must end this now. I never intended to write so much when I started. I hope we shall be in the same unit if we are taken on.
Yours etc. W2. (George)
After our holiday in Ootacamund and Bangalore and after receiving the letter from George Cambridge, we realised that as our future was being decided by those in Delhi and Simla, we ought to make our way to the north of India to join some of our colleagues already there; so we first returned by train to Bombay. I find that I haven't previously mentioned that when staying at the Byculla club we had engaged an Indian servant or "bearer" as he was called. He understood and spoke some English. Our stay at this time in Bombay was just long enough to enable us to get our railway free pass and reserve a first class coupe, i.e. a 2 berth compartment, on the 10 p.m. mail train leaving Byculla station, the terminus in Bombay of the B.B. C.I. railway (Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway) for our journey of over 1,000 miles to Kathgodam via Delhi and a further drive up the foothills of the Himalayas to Nainital at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
Having put our luggage in our compartment and left our bearer in charge, we thought we had time for a quick visit to some Burma friends who lived in a flat a short taxi drive from the station. Unfortunately, we somehow misjudged the time and when we got back to the station, our train had just left. Having lost all our possessions in Burma, it looked as if we had now lost our newly acquired possessions! The Station Master told us that he had delayed the departure of the train for a few minutes hoping we would arrive but couldn't hold it any longer. The first stop for our train was an hour's journey from Bombay (i.e. about 50 miles away.) The Station Master kindly sent a message to this station (named Bassein Road) to remove our luggage and servant from the mail train and to keep them there until we arrived by a later slow train, which we did. We were pleased that he had done this and grateful to find our servant and luggage again. Unfortunately, we had to spend the rest of the night sitting in the waiting room at this wayside station, trying to ward off the mosquitoes which appeared in large numbers. The station staff here, however, did their best to make us comfortable and provided us with tea. The first commuter train from this station to Bombay left about 6.30 a.m. so we returned to Bombay and spent the day making up for loss of sleep and making sure that we didn't miss the next night's mail train.
We arrived a day or so later in Nainital and found accommodation in the same hotel "Brookhill" where some of our Burma friends were staying. Nainital is distinguished by the fact that it is built mostly round a large lake at about 6,000 feet altitude and is quite picturesque. We enjoyed the cooler climate here as we did in "Ooty." Beyond us to the north were the higher ranges of the Himalayan mountains, some snow capped.
It was now July 1942. Although we had been "militarized" in Burma in August 1940, we had remained as civilians doing civilian jobs and wearing our civilian clothes. We were now to be properly "militarized" and soon received our orders to report to the Army Technical Centre at Jullundur, about 250 miles north-west of Delhi. Leaving our wives behind, we men all met again later that month in this army establishment and were housed in army bungalows. We proceeded to get our army uniforms and badges of rank. I think most of us whose ages ranged from 35 to nearly 55 (I myself, then being 37) were promoted to the rank of T/Captain. There were altogether about 30 of us ex Burma Railway Officers now at T.T.C. 2 in Jullundur undergoing military training. A few of our Officers, Mr Proctor, (Chief Engineer,) and Mr Parker (Chief Accounts Officer,) and a few others remained in Simla with members of the former Burma Government in exile and established their offices there.
We, meanwhile, were being drilled every morning on the parade ground and attended lectures on army regulations, bomb disposal, tactical exercises etc. and we had our meals in the Officers Mess. After a month or so, my friend George Cambridge and I managed to find rooms in local hotels and our wives were able to join us. A smart young Indian Army Officer put us through our parade ground drill and seemed to enjoy the task of exercising the senior ones among us - the Burma sahibs whose normal peace-time civilian activity was to drive from their homes to the office and back again.
During the four or five months we were here, some of us were required to attend training courses in marine transportation at Bombay. I went on one such course and stayed for two weeks at the Taj hotel, which then was mostly occupied by army and naval officers. Back in Jullnundur, I was for a time acting Adjutant at our headquarters until I received orders in January 1943 to report to the Transportation Directorate at Army Headquarters in New Delhi.
My wife and I then travelled to Delhi and were lodged in one of the many "hutments" that had just been built in the spacious grounds of the larger houses in New Delhi which belonged to the Indian Rajahs and Maharajas' and which had now been requisitioned by the military for the duration of the war, both as offices and residences for military headquarters staff. The Transportation Directorate Office to which I was appointed, with the rank of T/Staff Major under Brigadier Gardiner R.E., whom I had previously known when he was Government Inspector of Railways in Burma, were housed in a temporary building alongside the large red brick blocks of Government Offices in New Delhi which flank the approach to the Viceregal Palace.
At the time of our arrival in Delhi, Lord Linlithgow was Viceroy and General Wavell Commander-in-Chief. Shortly afterwards, as far as I remember, when Lord Linlithgow's term of Viceregal duties finished, General Wavell succeeded him as Viceroy and General Auchinleck became Commander-in-Chief. I remember having to attend, with the many other officers in Army Headquarters in Delhi, the lectures and pep-talks given by Auchinleck.
The ex-Burma Railway Officers in Jullundur were also posted to various Transportation Companies in other parts of India to carry out transportation work where required and to await orders for eventual movement towards Burma when that country was being recaptured. My work in the Transportation Directorate was concerned with the planning and provisioning of all railway materials likely to be required during the future advance of our armies into Burma and also the rehabilitation of the Burma Railways generally. When I first joined this Directorate I thought that this work would not keep me there for long but I found that the volume of my work there and other duties gradually increased, which, coupled with the trying weather conditions, i.e. summer temperatures of well over 100 degrees and the high humidity during the rains, together with the fact that I had had no home leave for 7 years, made me feel quite exhausted. However, the end of the year's colder weather in Delhi helped to improve one's health and morale. My wife, who was of course with me in Delhi, being a member of the Pharmaceutical Society, was employed as a Junior Scientific Officer in the Army Medical Directorate under Lt.-Col. Griffin. He had rented a private house in New Delhi which had three suites of rooms and he invited us to share the house and its rent and living costs with him, which we were pleased to do as the house was pleasantly situated near the lovely Lodi Gardens and was more comfortable than the Army hutments we were living in.
During 1943 and 1944 we in Delhi, several hundred miles away from the fighting, were not directly effected, in that no bombs were dropped on us, but there was a sense of urgency in all our work and our Commander-in-Chief General Sir Claude Auchinleck used to give us frequent pep-talks to keep us "on our toes" and to make sure that all supplies necessary for the re-conquest of Burma were ordered and processed. Being at Army Headquarters we were also, to some extent, aware of the comings and goings of many senior military staff. I remember seeing Major General Orde Wingate, leader of the Chindits. I was particularly interested in one of their early demolition jobs and this was the destruction of the Bonchaung Railway bridge in the Nankan Gorge, which I knew well, as this was on my first section of the railways when I was the Engineer there in 1928/29. When I returned to Burma, late in 1945, I was able to visit this site and photograph the damage. But more about that later. I also remember seeing Lord Louis Mountbatten driving about in Delhi in a white painted jeep when he came there in 1943 as "Supreme Commander-in-Chief. At his first conference on transportation, it was decided to militarize the Assam Bengal Railway, in order to increase the flow of army supplies to the front.
During the summer of 1943, I was able to get a couple of weeks army casual leave which my wife and I, together with another couple of our Burma friends, spent in Kashmir, sharing a houseboat on the Dhal Lake at Sringar and also going on a trek up the Sind valley where, I remember, we fished for trout and caught about six which were cooked for our lunch that day. We not only enjoyed the cool climate here but also the lovely scenery and the cherries and wild roses. We spent many hours in the Shalimar Gardens which were laid out, we were told, in the early seventeenth century by the Mogul Emperor Jehangir.
In the course of my work, I had to visit Simla to contact the Burma Railway Office which had been established there. This gave me the opportunity of seeing Sir John Rowland, fully recovered from his gruelling walk through the dreaded Hukawng valley. I was able to thank him for the help he had given me. I was also required to make a couple of flying visits to Calcutta to consult with the Army Transportation Office there.
In March 1945, I was able to get, through Army Movement Control, a passage home for my wife, who had not been in England since 1936, she sailed from Bombay to Liverpool on the P & O ship "Strathenden." I myself, was granted 61 days army leave later that year and flew home via Karachi, Baghdad, Cairo and Malta, arriving at Hurn airport and by train to Waterloo where my wife and my parents met me. It was during this long awaited but comparatively brief holiday that the war ended, with Germany capitulating in May and Japan, after its defeat in Burma and the atom bombing of its cities, in August 1945.
After my leave, I returned to India in October 1945 and found my services transferred to the Civil Affairs Service (Burma) with my rank of T/Major. I collected our baggage, which I had left in Delhi and proceeded to Calcutta and by ship to Rangoon; a very much battered city after nearly four years of war. In Rangoon, I was pleased to meet again many of my Burma friends who had also just returned. We "camped" in some of the old houses in Rangoon previously occupied by senior railway staff from which, of course, all furniture and fittings had been removed. Our job was now to rehabilitate the country and get things back to normal again as soon as possible! The first task I was given by my Chief Engineer was to make a reconnaissance survey of the state of the railway from Mandalay to Katha, a section of the railway some 180 miles long which I knew well. My survey party included a young Burmese Assistant Engineer and a Permanent Way Inspector and some Accounts Department staff, who during the war had remained in hiding in remote Burmese villages. Because we had money with us we had to have an armed guard. I cannot remember exactly how many we had in our survey party but I remember the two young Gurkha orderlies who supplied us with two 15 cwt. trucks and two jeeps for transporting ourselves and our camp kit. We left Rangoon about mid-December 1946 and motored the 400 miles on a very pot-holed main road to Mandalay.
We "camped" in Mandalay fort for a few days in what remained of the railway rest house in Mandalay station yard. As there was no possibility of obtaining any petrol after leaving Mandalay for our journey of over 200 miles up to Katha and back, I managed to get a 40 gallon drum of petrol loaded onto one of the army trucks and all our trucks and jeep tanks filled with petrol. Our first reconnaissance was at the Ava bridge, where the Japanese had effected a temporary "repair." At the Sagaing end of the bridge the retreating Japanese troops had diverted the rail tracks and had run some truck loads of rails into the river.
We "camped" at the next station, Ywataung, formerly a railway district headquarters, where nothing now remained of the station buildings or staff houses, some of the rail tracks had also been removed.
So noting the condition of things, we proceeded each day, myself and the other Permanent Way staff with me either walking along the railway or using a railway push trolley where we could find one and recording in detail what we found. The other members of the party, we sent ahead by road with our transport to find some vacant buildings, if possible, at some stations where we could camp for a night or so before going on. One such temporary stop, I remember, was on Christmas Day 1945 when I arrived at Shwebo at midday, having walked the last 12 miles there, as the Japanese had removed some lengths of railway. We were able to camp in an empty school house and later that day I met Frank Smitherman, a Superintendent of Police who was also in Shwebo at the time. I had met him some years before. As my destination was Katha and Mr Smithenman had a double barrel 12 bore shotgun which he wanted taken to the Police Superintendent in Katha, he asked me if I would do so. I said I would be pleased to take the gun if I could use it on the way to shoot jungle fowl for "the pot" for my party, as I knew that I would be going places where I used to shoot jungle fowl 15 or 16 years before. He said that there was no objection to my using the gun and also gave me some cartridges.
Our next stop for the night was at Kanbalu, a station about 40 miles further on, where the only place we could sleep on our camp beds was in the empty shell of what had been the local C. of E. church. As regards the state of the railway, I found that the track from here, which ran through increasingly wooded country, was in fair condition but some new railway sidings had been laid into the jungle by the Japanese to conceal from our bombers some engines and rolling stock. At Nankan, our next stopping place some 30 miles further on, we found a Forest Department Rest House still in good condition but devoid of its usual furniture. We were able to camp here for a couple of days and I was able to shoot some jungle fowl which provided a welcome additional to our diet, which had mainly been vegetable curries and rice.
Between Nankan and the next main railway station, Meza, the railway has to pass through some thickly wooded hills and does so via the Nankan Gorge and some bridges on high supporting piers of which the longest bridge is over the Bonchaung river. As I knew that the "Chindits" in 1943 had blown up these bridges, I was eager to see and photograph the damage. The photos also show the attempts made by the Japanese to bridge the gap with bamboos etc. cut from the nearby jungle, presumably to enable pedestrian traffic to pass over. Having recorded this scene of destruction, we returned to Nankan and obtained a local guide to show us the cart track over the hills which our motor trucks and jeeps had to get through for the next five or six miles to Meza where the railway bridge over the 120 foot wide Meza river was demolished, but our army engineers had built a Bailey Bridge just downstream of it, which enabled our transport to cross.
The Railway Bridge over the Bonchaung River
The Railway Bridge over the Bonchaung River demolished by the Chindits on the night of 6th March 1943. This event is described thus in Bernard Fergusson's book "Beyond the Chindwin." "David (Whitehead) hoped to have the bridge ready for "blowing" at half past eight or nine; he had already laid a hasty demolition, which we could blow if interrupted (by the Japanese.) Duncan (Menzies) had everybody ready to move at nine, mules loaded and all. David gave us five minutes warning and told us that the big bang would be preceded by a little bang. The little bang duly went off and there was a short delay; then... The flash illuminated the whole hillside. It showed the men tense and waiting, the muleteers with a good grip on their mules; the brown of the path and the green of the trees preternaturally vivid. Then came the big bang. The mules plunged and kicked, the hills for miles around rolled the sound of it about their hollows and flung it to their neighbours."
At Meza, I met the bomb disposal officer whose task it was to locate and detonate any un-exploded bombs lying near the railway bridges, so not having come along the track from Bonchaung to Meza, I decided to accompany him back to Bonchaung along the railway. We found altogether four large un-exploded bombs lying in the dry stream bed alongside two more bridges and after warning the local villagers to keep well out of the way, these bombs were exploded.. We ourselves, were taking cover behind a large tree some 100 yards away from the bombs as they exploded and were fortunate to escape injury when a large portion of bomb casing hit our tree. Some Burmese villagers, who were also with us, were shivering with fright as, no doubt, they remembered the occasions when our planes bombed these bridges in 1942 and 1943. From Meza we continued along the railway track to Indaw, the place from which many of our railway staff had started their long walk out to India, with the Japanese forces not far behind them in May 1942. Indaw was still a mess, having been bombed and fought over. The railway track itself was more or less intact but much in need of maintenance. All railway buildings no longer existed.
And so to Naba, and by the branch line over the hills to Katha on the west bank of the Irrawaddy. Katha had been my headquarters in 1928-1930 as I have mentioned earlier and of course, I knew it well. It was now a somewhat depressing looking place. My old house, a timber built building was no longer there, but my old office, a brick building next door was still there, an empty building which we camped in for the few days we were there. I gave the 12 bore and unused cartridges in at the Police station and discussed with the Army Transport Officer there the best way of getting our party, with its two army trucks and two jeeps, back to Mandalay. We had been on the move for the past six weeks, so did not take unkindly to his suggestion that we could go down to Mandalay by river, a distance of about 150 miles. He could let us have the use of two army R.C.L.'s (Ramped Cargo Lighters) barge-like, shallow draught vessels, driven by petrol engines with propellers. These had been used by our advancing army in 1945 to ferry troops and supplies across and along rivers. With ourselves and our transport loaded on these R.C.L.'s we left Katha and proceeded down river at a steady but slowish pace. Still visible in the river, were the funnels and superstructure of some of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's steamers that had been scuttled there in May 1942. I think it took about four days to reach the riverside at Mandalay. As we tied up each night alongside a village on the river bank and bought any foodstuffs we needed. We quite enjoyed the journey, despite the fact that our navigation was not so good and we ran aground a few times and had to pole ourselves off. However, we appreciated the lovely riverside scenery and the chance to rest.
From Mandalay, having filled up with petrol from the army depot, we started on our long journey back to Rangoon. We stopped for a while at Pyinmana, as I was curious to see if the railway house we had lived in from 1936-39 still existed. All that remained of it was the concrete ground floor. We stayed the night in Toungoo, the town where the Japanese advance in 1942 was fiercely resisted for some time by our troops and the town was still very much a shambles.
The next afternoon we were back in Rangoon and handed back our transport to the army depot, except for one jeep which I kept. My next task was the preparation of my report, which I completed in a week or so and submitted to my Chief Engineer. Much work had to be done to restore the railway to its pre-war condition, apart from carrying out intended improvements. My work now centered on the railway work in the Rangoon area. We were still in somewhat primitive and uncomfortable conditions and as my wife had written to say that she wanted to join me and had obtained a passage to Rangoon, on the "Empire Haig" sailing from Hull, I had to find somewhere else to live other than the one room in a house and a camp bed and table. Fortunately, I discovered that the Civil Affairs Service Officer responsible for finding and allocating accommodation in Rangoon was an old friend of mine and he kindly found me a flat in Prome Court, a block of flats on Prome road not far from where we had lived in 1939 and 1940. The flat was furnished with the bare essentials of furniture and as many others were also tying to find furniture it took some time to acquire the extra items to make the flat more comfortable. However, by the time my wife arrived on 6th September 1946, I had managed to make a home of it. Shortly after this, when I arrived at my office one morning, I was surprised to see one of our old servants waiting to see me. He was soon back in our employment. I asked him how he had managed to survive and he said he had lived in a village and had done some trading. We were glad to have him back to look after us.
With the gradual arrival back in Rangoon of many of our old friends, we were able to enjoy a moderate amount of social life at the Pegu Club, the Boat Club and the Swimming Club, which had been made usable again. We also had enough work to keep us busy.
As we had not had any home leave from the railway since 1936 - nearly 10 years ago, I expressed the hope that it would be soon granted and at last on the 1st March 1947 my wife and I sailed from Rangoon on the P & O troopship "Corfu" and arrived in Southampton on the 25th March.
Unfortunately the date of granting independence to Burma in 1947 is not recorded in my diary but it must have been before 19th July, when the diary records that Aung San and his newly formed Cabinet of Burmese Ministers were all assassinated at their first meeting. Later in that year, on the 3rd October, I received - and I presume all ex-employees of the Government of Burma also received - a letter from the Secretary of State for Burma saying, in effect, that those not returning to Burma would not lose their entitlement to whatever benefits their employment in Burma had earned. I then submitted my letter of resignation.
Thus ended my engineering career in Burma which, in many ways, I had enjoyed.
Data and images on this website are the copyright of the Anglo-Burmese Library, all rights reserved.
Page updated 1st December 2022
Page updated 1st December 2022