Aidan Kenneth Thompson
Recollections of a Burma Frontier Serviceman
RANGOON - Royal Engineers Corps. March 1914
One memorable night the searchlight picked out the shape of a warship the alarm was sounded and the sentries turned out to man the 4.7”guns that were positioned on high ground facing the river. We were on the alert for the German warship raider “Emden” which was known to be in the Bay of Bengal and after sinking thousands of tons of valuable allied shipping had the audacity of firing its guns in Madras Harbour.
By some stroke of fortune Rangoon escaped unscathed. The warship that my searchlight had spotted was identified as the Russian light cruiser, “Zemtchug” and was finally sunk off Penang during the night when all its crew went ashore to Penang Island to see the sights.
MHOW 21st December 1918 My 21st birthday - Here I was sent to do a bombing course.
HAKA - BURMA FRONTIER SERVICE, December 1922
Haka was a very large charge, probably about the same size as Wales. It took me 20 days at 20 miles a day travelling to travel to the end of my charge, which bordered the Arakan Hill tracks. Haka sub-division was inhabited by 17 different tribes, each tribe speaking a different dialect as different as English is to French or German. Occasionally when settling disputes, two or more interpreters were required and only a very shortened version of the dispute was passed down to me – the Haka Chins were very litigious and but for the fact that they were very truthful, there would have been very little time for the political officer to have any free time.
I was always able to get out after teatime for a stroll and put up game birds living in the surroundings. I often returned with a partridge, pheasant or woodcock, all making an acceptable change to my very restrictive diet meat supply. Often, fishing too was possible but I found Carp too bony a fish and somewhat tasteless and too tough to enjoy, but the villagers who shared in all my catches at fishing and shooting, were only too happy to set out over and over again to have another go of fishing and shooting. These exercises kept me very fit and happy and I enjoyed this part of my very lonely existence. What pleasant memories I carry now of those 50 or more years ago.
The Solomon Touch in settling a difficult land dispute.
There was a stream running below the village and we proceeded there with most of the villagers who were interested as onlookers. On reaching the stream both litigants walked towards the deep part of the stream and, on getting the word, “Commenced Diving” – they both bobbed down in the water with their heads completely submerged. One of the litigants sent up a lot of air bubbles and it was obvious that he would die of drowning if he did not get out quickly. He jumped up as I expected and as he ram along the banks of the stream the onlookers chased him and threw stones at him as he had proved himself a liar and a loser.
The whole business in my opinion is psychological, for these simple people believed that death would certainly result if the plaintiff, of whichever party, was deliberately lying. The fear of death forced the lying litigant to come out of the water in order to quickly breathe in fresh air before being suffocated. I accepted this form of settling a long-standing dispute and finally passed judgement in favour of the defendant who seemed unperturbed throughout the diving test and later came up smiling without showing any signs of distress. Perhaps this form of testing the veracity of the litigants is, from a common sense point of view, a fair method of getting down to the truth of the matter and I accepted it as it appeared to work to the satisfaction of the villagers whose peace had been disturbed for many years.
The capture of two notorious outlaws named Radum and Raboi.
The capture was a complete success and the schoolboy informer was presented with a flintlock gun and money as his reward, while all the others shared in the cash reward of nearly £2000. The two rebels were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment and as far as I know they are law-abiding citizens today. For their capture I myself, received a short note from the Government that Mr Thompson did well on this occasion and I also saw a short Reuter’s report which had appeared in the Calcutta Statesman.
CHIN HILLS - Animals
The rivers were teeming with fish which lived in virgin waters, parts of which were never before fished over and were therefore, far easier to catch with a treble pronged hook or a 3½” guilt spoon – the largest Mahseer of the carp family which I successfully hooked and eventually landed was a large 62 pounder.
Among the game birds there were the pheasants - Silver Kalige, the Lady Amhurst and the Tragopan, the Peacock and the pure white species, also Partridges, Button Quail, Woodcock, Teal and Jungle Foul. The Tragopan pheasant, also known as the Horned Pheasant, was found only on very highest peaks of the Chin Hills. The nests of these very rare birds escaped notice for many years and were only found after a lot of searching. This was the result of my good friend and ardent ornithologist Captain Liversey’s efforts and as a result the money reward promised was given to the finder, a semi-wild Chin of the Haka tribe.
In all the 4 years I spent in the Haka area, I only once saw a Tragopan flying over the road, while I was travelling below Fort White (7500 feet above sea level).
LOWER CHINDWIN DISTRICT, 1923
My duties at the hanging were to make sure that the right person was executed, for it is known that in the past, the wrong prisoner has been dragged away in the dark, by mistake, and hanged despite his pleas of innocence. It was still quite dark when I approached the prisoner. At first he appeared pleased to see me and he asked me whether I had come to tell him that he had been successful in his appeal. He was most concerned that a message should be passed to his mother to let her know that his thoughts were with her to the last and he asked me to deliver some of his old clothing to her as proof. He was almost in tears when begging of me to give him a silver coin on receiving which he received it between his teeth and I was told that the money was necessary and was to pay the fare that was to be paid to the ferryman to take him from this universe to the other world.
When the hood was finally placed over his head and he was helped up to the gallows, all the time while he was moving, I could hear the man calling out to God to help him. I stood only three feet away from where he was to drop when the trap door was released and was clearly able to observe the proceedings and I went up to the dead body to verify that death was instantaneous. It was an unforgettable sight and it put me off eating my meals for the rest of that day. The Civil Surgeon who was also there to officially witness the hanging told me that if I had seen as many hangings as he had done, I would be quite hardened and unmoved and it would not have any effect on me whatsoever!
There has been so much written about hangings and the question of the rights and wrongs of it, answers to which were given by laymen who had no experience of actually seeing it carried out, that I feel that as I am in a stronger position to give my opinion about the whole gruesome business. I have great sympathy for the hangman and those who were by law expected to take any part in deliberately putting an end to life, which should be exercised only by God alone, in my view – it was all too cold blooded a sight to witnessed and it left an indelible impression on me.
Surely it would have been better to have followed the ancient Greek and Roman method of administering poison to the prisoner on the night before the execution without warning, so that nothing visible of the execution or the sad feelings about it were experienced by the official onlookers, who had to be present in an official capacity.
SHAN STATES, 1926
Murder of a Shan Prince
This foul deed took place on the festival grounds 35 miles away where thousands of villagers had gathered and had since been quickly deserted. He said that all the people were very afraid and my presence was necessary to disarm the Prince. The firearm had not by been then found. I immediately motored to the scene and had the idea of using someone friendly enough with the prince, who would be allowed to quietly remove the offending weapon that was missing. It was suggested that a young Shan policeman was the prince’s best friend and constant companion. The policeman concerned arrived and I agreed to let him search and disarm the prince’s room while I waited outside the room, ready with my revolver to shoot the prince, if he resisted or harmed the friendly policeman in any way. Fortunately, the prince remained calm and surrendered the offending weapon without resistance. On entering the room, where Prince Saomaung was lying on the floor with is dead brother lying nearby with the fatal gunshot wound on his right side, just below the collarbone or shoulder.
I questioned the prince as to whether he understood what he had done. He explained that he had heard strange voices warning him that his dead brother had entered the room with the intention to spear him to death and in order to avoid being killed, the ruing prince shot dead his heir and younger brother. I told Prince Saomaung, that he would now have to accompany me back to Loilem. He moved his hand towards his pillow and I suspected that he was looking for a pistol to shoot me, but he explained that he was looking for his jacket to wear if he was to accompany me.
Having now disarmed him, I had him handcuffed and accompanied to my car, placing him in the back seat between two Shan constables. On reaching Loilem, we took him to the comfortable officer’s rest house where we put him to bed to which he was chained, to prevent him from escaping.
Prince Saomaung was later tried by me for murder and as he was not in his right senses, I ordered that he be sent to the mental hospital in Rangoon, until his health showed improvement – he served there for 6 months and returned to his home sufficiently cured of his unhappy affliction of his much disturbed mind. The poor mother of both the princes feared that she was about to lose both of them. Saomaung by execution for killing her other princely son, so the old lady was glad on hearing the sentence that at least one of her sons would be still alive at the end of this whole ghastly tragedy!
The action I took against Prince Saomaung of Laikha of handcuffing him and then sentencing him to confinement in a mental asylum caused quite a stir among the other princes in the Shan states who thought they were “above the law” and therefore could not be tried and arrested for criminal offences, like ordinary people - as they, the princes “can do no wrong.” They strongly believed that they were selected by divine choice for services as princes by the almighty, the same as British King’s believed, such as King Charles 11 when he was executed.
LONDON, February 1934
MYITKYINA DISTRICT, May 1935
This long road of over 130 miles was unusable by cars in rainy weather as the muddy road surface was dangerously slippery for motor traffic. We travelled alongside pack ponies carrying our household clothes and chattels. The timber bungalow we occupied had a thatched roof and consisted of a large hall with two bedrooms. The cookhouse was outside connected by a roofed passageway. There was no running water arrangement for flushing the toilet and filling the zinc bathtubs. We lived at about 3000 feet above sea level and the climate was tolerably cool all year round. Paraffin lamps supplied us with enough light to read in the evenings.
There was very little crime or civil litigation, certainly not enough work to justify the presence there of a whole time British Officer, also there were no facilities to indulge in sport in the town, neither was there any rough shooting to be had around the precincts of the town owing to the impenetrable bamboo growth all round. The town got the worst weather with frequent rainfall and violent storms accompanied by lightening during every month of the year, rain coming from the east and west. No sooner had the Indian monsoons ended when the China monsoons took over. Books and clothes and bedding always had a damp smell, which was difficult to eradicate without sunshine.
A sharp storm one night brought with it a flash of lightening which nearly put an end to our lives and the destruction of the highly combustible bungalow. A tree behind the bungalow alongside my stables, which sheltered our ponies, was struck and partially destroyed.
I dealt with one interesting civil case connected with lightening in which the plaintiff filed a suit for compensation from a traveller who had entered his house to take shelter and took with him a copy of the Holy Bible and a large Kachin knife. The bible was burnt and the knife was pitted with tiny burn marks, which the plaintiff claimed had attracted lightening which had finally destroyed his small hut. The claim was dismissed, as it was clear that the defendant was not in any way responsible for the disaster.
One afternoon while camping alongside a small fishing stream I was awakened by prolonged yelling and shouting. On enquiring I was told that my Chin cook had, while under slight influence of alcohol, jumped into the deep stream and soon disappeared under the cold water. He couldn’t swim and all attempts to drag him out alive, with bamboo poles failed. When he did come out I tried artificial respiration but it was all too late much to my sorrow. I lost my faithful servant and rushed back home and broke the sad news to Peggy. I cut short my tour and on returning home telegraphed the cook’s widow in the Chin Hills, 1000 miles away, to inform her of the fatal accident to her husband. I followed this up by sending her a postal order for the equivalent of one month’s wages.
Whilst touring I noticed a field of red poppies growing and after questioning the owner of the plot ordered his arrest and trial for breaking the law for cultivating opium which was only discovered because the plot was so near the mule path which I was on at the time. To completely stop this criminal activity on the part of the Kachin villagers I would have required a very large force of local policemen to enforce the law. At one village I was met by a stout Kachin lady who claimed to be a chief, which amused me and brought a smile to my face.
The Sumprabum charge adjoined the Yunnan Province in China and every year during the winter large Chinese mule caravans crossed into Burma with loads of cereals etc and the Chinese muleteers no doubt went back with opium grown locally in the charges, for which they bartered with Kachin products. The Kachins were law abiding and these Chinese caravans were never molested, but travellers into China often ran a big risk of losing their lives or property by armed Chinese bandits. The Chinese muleteers seemed to get on well with the semi-wild Kachins whose only vice was imbibing and smoking locally grown opium. They, the Kachins, had nothing in the way of medicines to soothe the pains we humans are subject to sometime or other in our lives. The bamboo forests around Sumprabum were impenetrable to wild animals and because there was no open country wild animals, like the sambhur, wild pigs, deer etc were only occasionally seen.
Pow Chin How’s Story
. Also in order that the new religion could get the maximum out of their prayers, that a written language be started and various alphabets were shaped to make reading possible. Soon this written language spread throughout the southern Chin Hills and into the adjoining Lushai hills.
After the introduction of the new written language, the people were, for the first time ever, able to communicate by letter with each other. This new religion soon took on and in a very short time thousands of Pow Chin How’s followers were filling his churches and praying for divine help when spirits had failed them.
In the year 1921, there was a Government publication giving an abstract of the details of the Chin Hills population census, there is a special section in the publication dealing with the written language introduced by Pow Chin How showing examples of the hieroglyphics, which made up the alphabet of the new language. The alphabets, i.e. hieroglyphics mentioned here bear no resemblance to any of the other alphabets known to me and this is proof that it is absolutely original and not copied from another language. Pow Chin How himself was illiterate and at the time he had no knowledge of the existence of a somewhat similar hieroglyphics existing in the Egyptian written language. This can be accepted as proof that the new alphabet was formed with the inspiration from God alone and not something thought out by Pow Chin How himself.
Pow Chin How appeared willing to accept Bishop Falliere’s RC religion and I have a letter from the bishop explaining how many new convents had been opened in Tiddim and including Christian Brother schools established with some Chins becoming priests and nuns, thus helping to educate wild people to understand Christianity as practised by the RC faith. For this the bishop blessed me millions of times and his blessings have later protected me and my family in many ways and I attribute it to my life today because of the blessings bestowed on me by this saintly bishop Falliere of Mandalay.
Our miraculous escape out of Burma with the Japanese literally on our heels is proof how powerful the blessings have proved to be to combat and brush off evil. For many years the American Baptist Mission had instituted the Baptist religion, but because of the strict prohibition of alcohol, they had little or no success with their conversions. Many joined the RC’s because the rules re alcohol were relaxed. These people were very young when they first imbibed in beer. In fact, infants were often given beer in place of mother’s milk.
MINBU - A snake story
RANGOON - Baluchi Regiment, 1939/40
The members of the 29th Baluchi Regt. when about to embark at Rangoon harbour, suddenly decided to refuse to go up into the troop ships and this was tantamount to mutiny in wartime. The whole regiment was punished and they spent several months in the prisoners’ camp in the remote part of the city of Rangoon. I met one of the firing party of British soldiers who took part in the execution of the Indian officer (a Baluchi Subedar?) in charge of the rebels. He was found guilty of instigating his men to mutiny. He remained unrepentant when facing the firing squad and refused to be blind folded and faced death and the horrible experience of knowing that death would destroy him within minutes without craving for forgiveness or even a tear in his eyes. He died as bravely as he and his brave men would have done had they had to face the enemy in face-to-face combat, while serving with the 2/70 Burma Infantry.
Before reaching Myitkyina I obtained permission from Mr Appedale, I.C.S (Indian Civil Service), the British Representative to leave my post and accompany my family on our flight to India. There was a small gathering of my office staff and the priests of the R.C. Irish Mission of Myitkyina to see us off, including Mr Appedale.
We left for India on a Dakota plane on the 24th April 1942 and after a hair raising trip across range after range of mountainous terrain, dodging in and out of valleys, with the wing tips of the plane almost touching the hillsides and then suddenly coming face to face with a steep hill and looping over it. Fortunately, our American pilot had had weeks of practice carrying out similar manoeuvres, for he had done the trip over and over again. The flight could quite easily have ended in disaster, had we crashed there, we might never have been rescued. The plane was owned by the Chinese National Airways, this company had previously rescued hundreds of people by flying evacuees to safety in India. Two days after our departure we heard that the Japs. had bombed the landing strip in Myitkyina, when some Europeans waiting for transport on the strip, had been killed.
Later we touched down on a level patch of bush jungle where we passengers awaited another plane on to which we were transferred as the pilot considered that we were overloaded. Soon we took off again and not long afterwards touched down safely at Tezpur (Assam), where we were refreshed by the European tea planters who provided fresh milk and biscuits for the infants and a plate of curry and rice for the others.
We boarded an overcrowded train at Tezpur and after a long, tedious trip to Dibrugar, we then transferred on to a large paddle ship to travel over the Brama Putra River for two days and nights, eventually disembarking at a small riverside town and from there went by train to Calcutta. The whole journey had taken about 5 days of great discomfort and heat.
My son Chris remembers being told that all the possessions the family brought out of Burma was contained in a large handbag, my dress shirt, gold half-hunter watch, which was given to my great grandfather, John Frances Xavier Thompson on his 21st birthday, in recognition of completing his 7-years as an articled clerk to a firm of attorneys called Law and Sons – I still have this watch (2003), which was given to me on my 21st birthday together with some letters from his grandmother known as Granny Mim- Knott about my birth, telling my mother (Iris) that there had been someone previously on that side of the family, called Colonel Christopher Billopp, who was born on Staten Island, New York, which he left in the 1770s to go to St John, New Brunswick. The house that his grandfather, Captain Christopher Billopp built in the 1670s is still standing and is now a museum, known as The Conference House.
In that bag my wife would also have had to carry all the paraphernalia needed for a 4-week old baby, plus clothes for two small children aged 2 and 7yrs.
Chris can either remember, or at least remembers being told, that their plane out of Burma was followed by a Japanese reconnaissance plane and having to land in a jungle clearing and wait on the ground until it had gone away. His only other memory of the journey is a crowded train with people hanging on the sides and on the roof.
I know that my sister, Pauline (Polly) Gauld, and her husband, George, and daughter, Mary had preceded us (Polly and Mary aged 1½ yrs) went out of Burma by foot and bullock cart, George went later by plane) and I was able to trace their address in Dehra Dun through their bankers in Calcutta.
We did the final journey to Dehra Dun by fast train and arrived there to sleep in comfort in a small bungalow near the banks of the Ganges. We spent a few weeks there and from there I made efforts to join the forces by going to Delhi and applying there at GHQ.
Bill Williams a.k.a., “Elephant Bill” was my bombing instructor, I met him in the plains of Manipur during WWII, he was then a Colonel in command of all the elephants he and his men had recapture from the Japanese. He wrote a book entitled “Elephant Bill” about the wild and tame elephants he worked and studied when he was working for the Bombay Burma Trading Company, he served in the deep forest extracting timber for the firm.
JAPANESE BOMBING RAID ON IMPHAL
Among the important interesting people I dealt with was a southern Indian schoolteacher taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore, where he had taught English to the Indian children. He turned out to be an excellent informer and produced very important information regarding Japanese defences in the Andaman Islands and Malaya. Actually, the Japanese trained him to spy for them and gave him a transmitting radio set with the Japanese secret code to transmit messages from Madras where they had secretly landed him by submarine and rubber dinghy. Fortunately, he was arrested by the police before he was able to do any spying for the Japanese.
All the information he gave me would have been of vital importance to us had our plans to invade the Malayan Peninsula via the Andaman’s been carried out. But owing to the sudden ending of the war in the Far East, none of the information was used. Nevertheless, I received congratulatory telegrams from Washington USA for the excellent report I had turned out. The Indian, who was caught spying was sentenced to death for this offence for which there is no alternative punishment. The man begged that his life be spared for all the true information he had supplied, but my Colonel said that no promise could be held out to him as the “law would have to take its course.”
I often wondered what the Japs. thought had happened to their Indian spy – maybe they never heard about his capture and eventual death by hanging for his part in spying for them.
My son Chris, then aged 6 yrs, remembers waiting in a transit camp, living in tents prior to embarkation and being told that the Indian Navy were mutinying at the time. He also remembers the journey through the Suez Canal - men in boats throwing up ropes for people to buy their goods, also many masts of sunken ships sticking out of the water. His other memories of the boat journey are a very rough sea in the Bay of Biscay and standing in a sheltered area near the bow, with his brother Mick (4yrs), watching large waves break over the full length of the ship.
We made our way to Kent and shared a house with my wife’s old school teacher Miss Kendall, headmistress of Raymont School, until I was able to buy our own home, a Victorian house with a large garden, which gave great pleasure to Peggy.