Sentry Page Protection
Joan M. Morton, M.B.E.
Widow of Major A.V. Morton,
The Gloucestershire Regiment
Killed in action at Shwedaung
30th March 1942
The Gloucestershire Regiment
Killed in action at Shwedaung
30th March 1942
Joan’s story starts with the bombing of Rangoon and ends with her final departure from Burma 1948
Early in 1941 Victor had the luck to be seconded for three months to the Staff of an Army Training School for British civilians in Burma at the hill station of Maymyo and of course I went with him. We were allotted a very nice house near the Botanical Gardens and enjoyed the change of air and scene enormously after the humidity and flatness at Mingaladon. Maymyo Club was in full swing and we made a lot of new friends and Victor found his job interesting and rewarding as the recruits were very keen and responsive. We also enjoyed the change of food, especially the strawberries which were cheap and plentiful. Needless to say we went out into the surrounding countryside as often as possible with our butterfly nets. We also played some very bad but enjoyable golf.
At the end of the course we spent a short holiday in a hotel at Kalaw, which was more attractive than Maymyo in many ways, with a really beautiful golf course set amongst pine trees. Victor then returned to Mingaladon, driving all night (400 miles) leaving me to enjoy the cool air in Kalaw a little longer, as the monsoon had not yet broken and it was still very hot and humid down below. Two other regimental wives, Finetta Bagot and Mollie Bath and Eve Blakenay, whose husband was with Burma Railways, all close friends of mine, were also in Kalaw, so I wasn’t lonely.
I had been feeling for some time before going to Maymyo that I ought to be making myself useful somehow with my secretarial training and there had been a suggestion that I might take on the job of secretary to the Air Officer Commanding R.A.F. There was at the moment only one squadron with sixteen antiquated Buffalo aircraft, but an Australian, Group Captain Manning and a small staff had been appointed to organise the construction of some air-strips in various parts of Burma, as there was at the moment only one, at Mingaladon.
While I was in Kalaw, Victor went to see the A.O.C. and wrote that the job would be a highly confidential one and for that reason he would prefer a British rather than a Burmese secretary but was doubtful about appointing a “Gloster” wife who might have to leave suddenly if the regiment was moved. He would therefore think it over but would like to see me before deciding. The upshot of this was that, as no one else suitable could be found to take on the job, I found myself in June 1941 a full-time secretary from 9 am to 4 pm in an office in the middle of Rangoon. A more different job than the one I had at S.P.G. House, Tufton Street, Westminster, in the 1920’s it would be hard to imagine, but I found it intensely interesting and demanding. Group Captain Manning was a quiet, charming man, extremely pleasant to work for and the rest of the staff were very co-operative. At first the only snag was getting in and out of Rangoon, as Victor needed the car during the day, so we had to take on an Indian driver to ferry me to and fro, but eventually Victor bought a motor-bike which he had always rather hankered for, so that I could have the car all day.
Looking back now it seems unbelievable that only eight months before the fall of Rangoon to the Japs. there was, at any rate as far as I was concerned, no realisation of the possibility that Burma could be drawn into the war, much less being invaded by the Japs. Obviously in my job, I knew about the preparations being made by the R.A.F. but even so there did not seem to me to be any sign of desperate urgency. The ordinary life of the regiment still continued, including the Ladies’ Rifle Club and everyone seemed quite calm. We knew in July of course that the Japs. had invaded Indo-China, but Singapore was supposed to be impregnable and as far as I can remember there was still no hint of imminent danger. I learnt a long time afterwards that our C.O. Lt.-Colonel Charles Bagot, was seriously worried about the acute shortage of ammunition and transport for the regiment and by the lack of urgency shown by Army H.Q. and that he had requested that the families should be evacuated to India and that the regimental colours and Mess silver should be sent to India under escort, but both these requests were refused. How much Victor knew about all this I cannot tell, but outwardly he remained quite calm and his usual cheerful self.
Sometime in September or October R.A.F. H.Q. was moved to a specially prepared site on the outskirts of the town, where “bashas” (bamboo huts) had been put up. These were a great improvement on the office rooms in the centre, much cooler and more spacious. The monsoon had ended and life was much pleasanter all round. But early in December a series of dramatic events changed everything, first the attack by the Japs. on Pearl Harbour on the 7th, then the invasion of Malaya on the 8th and lastly the sinking of the battleships “Prince of Wales” and “Repulse” off the coast of Malaya on the 10th.
The news of the sinking of the battleships was the biggest shock of all and I can distinctly remember hearing the announcement on our little radio set and calling it up to Victor who was doing a bit of carpentry upstairs. We were both quite stunned and I think that was the moment when we really grasped the full seriousness of the situation, how extremely vulnerable we were and the very real possibility that our world might be about to fall apart.
During the next few weeks, events moved very rapidly. On December 12th the Japs. invaded Burma in the South occupying Mergui and Tavoy and on the same day their Air Force destroyed all the airfields in the area. Colonel Bagot again asked permission to send the families to India. Incredibly this was still refused but permission was received to send them up to Maymyo and all but a few (which included Finetta Bagot, Marjorie Ladds and myself) departed thence at 48 hours notice leaving most of their possessions behind.
Some time previously, Air Vice-Marshall Stevenson had taken over command of the R.A.F. and reinforcements had arrived in the shape of 16 pilots of the American Volunteer Group with their small fighter P. 40 aircraft, known as the Flying Tigers because on each fuselage was a picture of a snarling Bengal tiger with two wings flying through a large V for Victory. They had been recruited in the United States early in 1941 and trained by a tough ex-Army Corps Brigadier General called Chennault specifically for service in China against the Japs. American was not then at war with Japan, but Roosevelt had agreed with Chiang-Kai-Shek to help him as much as possible on a lend-lease basis. While on their way to China, Chiang-Kai-Shek decided in his own interests to offer one squadron for the defence of the port of Rangoon, where many of his supplies from abroad were unloaded and sent on their way up the Burma road.
At R.A.F. H.Q. everyone seemed outwardly calm, the only sign of underlying tension being that we were all issued with tin helmets and trenches were dug all round the basha huts. I ordered a turkey from a shop in the town for our Christmas dinner and we asked some of the younger officers to join us. But on the morning of December 23rd this calm was shattered suddenly when a telephone message was received that Jap. bombers had arrived over Mingaladon, had dropped bombs on the airfield and were on their way to the city. The order was immediately given to put on our tin helmets and take to the trenches. On such occasions it is often the trivial things that remain clearest in one’s memory. Group Captain Manning and I shared a trench and I distinctly remember being rather astonished (though flattered!) when he suddenly said “that helmet does suit you,” a remark so out of character that I realised he must be rather shaken out of his usual calm self.
No bombs fell on or near H.Q. but we could hear them being dropped over the city and could see dog-fights going on all round and above us. It was all over in about 30 minutes and we returned to our office desks where telephones started ringing furiously. The greatest anxiety was about the airfield and for some time we could not get through to it as the Operations Office had been hit, but eventually a messenger arrived by road on a motor-bike to tell us that no one had been killed and no aircraft damaged.
I was naturally anxious about Victor, but there was no way of finding out if he was all right, so I had to control myself. When I arrived home later I was relieved to find he was O.K. and that the barracks had escaped damage, but there had been a direct hit on the married quarters, so the families had only left just in time. Not such good news was that Finetta Bagot and her small daughter Veronica had been shopping in the town when the alarm was sounded and had taken shelter in a trench in Sale Barracks. As the raid started Major Griffin, our Quarter-Master, had come across to see if they were all right and had joined them in the trench. Seeing parachutes coming down near-by he got out of the trench to get his revolver from his car, when a bomb fell a few yards away seriously wounding him and giving Finetta and Veronica a horrible shock.
Before I went home, news had been received at H.Q. of the huge number of casualties amongst the native population who had come rushing out to see the raiders and had been hit by anti-personnel bombs which did no great damage to buildings but sent splinters flying in all directions near the ground. The hospitals were over-flowing and streams of refugees had already started to pour out of the town. The next day, Christmas Eve, I went, during my lunch hour, to collect our turkey and found the shop deserted with the door unlocked and the fridge still working, so was able to grab a turkey and take it away, without paying for it of course.
At this distance in time I cannot remember whether I was at home or R.A.F. H.Q. on the morning of Christmas Day when the Japs. came again, but it is most probable I was on duty. This time 100 bombers (twice the number on the 23rd) again raided Rangoon, but the casualties were not so heavy, as so many had fled the city. The barracks again escaped, but one soldier was killed. The Japs. had boasted on their radio that they would spoil the Glosters Christmas dinner, but the regimental cooks rose to the occasion and the dinners were as good as ever and were had by all, even those away from barracks on duty elsewhere.
Finetta Bagot, having spent most of the day sitting under a tree with Veronica some distance from the cantonment, where Charles had hurriedly driven them when the warning sounded, was then ordered by him to pack a few belongings and be ready to proceed to Maymyo by train with the few remaining families. This they did, though not without some difficulty, as no railway personnel could be found at the station. However, an engine and carriages were found and pushed into the station by some Glosters and a volunteer Anglo-India engine driver was found, so they eventually got away. Later, on 13th March, with Marjorie Ladds and her two children, she and Veronica were flown out from Shwebo to Chittagong, after an exhausting train journey in 3rd class carriages from Maymyo, the other families having already left.
Sufficient warning for aircraft to take off and attack the enemy bombers on both raids was given by messengers on bicycles from the orderly room and more than thirty bombers were brought down by the Buffalos and Flying Tigers.
In spite of the raid Victor and I were able to eat our turkey with our guests and mercifully did not know that this was to be out last Christmas together.
The next three weeks were very hectic. The Japs. continued to attack Rangoon from the air, trying to overwhelm our small air force, which fought back with the upmost bravery and succeeded in destroying many of their bombers and fighters with small loss to themselves, but the wear and tear on the aircraft was considerable and maintenance was a terrible problem. During this time the Glosters were also at full stretch, guarding the airfield, arsenal and ordnance depots and performing many other tasks in Rangoon made necessary by the panic desertion of so many of its inhabitants. Victor as 2nd in Command was of course intensely involved in all this and I was rushing in and out of Rangoon to R.A.F. G.Q. where everyone was also at full stretch. Very often the Japs. came at night so we did not get any proper sleep. I suppose it was because of all this that about the middle of January I cracked up with an attack of my old enemy dysentery and was ordered by the Medical Officer to take sick leave. Victor insisted that I should go up to Maymyo and put me on a train on 12th January. Finetta Bagot and Marjorie Ladds were still up there with all the other wives and families, but I cannot remember where I stayed.
Victor and I, as we always did when apart, wrote to each other every day and miraculously letters came through quite quickly, taking only about 48 hours. Possibly from a desire not to alarm me unduly, or more probably because any information he may have had about the deterioration of the situation in the south was strictly confidential, Victor’s first few letters showed no sign of undue anxiety. He did mention that he had begun to pack up our personal belongings (furniture etc. was always provided in Army quarters) but I had already heard before leaving that these were to be sent up to Maymyo for safety. I also knew that he had been preparing a camp for the reception of reinforcements from India and in one letter he told me “the bees swarmed last night.” Later I heard that the bees were a brigade of Indian and Gurkha battalions, reinforcements for the 17th Division (Black Cats) which was fighting a desperate battle down south under the command of Major-General Jack Smyth, V.C.
On the 20th January, Victor wrote that he had visited R.A.F. H.Q. and had been told that they would welcome me back as soon as I was fit, as there was plenty of work to be done, but that their womenfolk would be evacuated if it became an absolute necessity. However, in the same letter he told me that he had heard from a friend of ours, Mrs Ninian Taylor, wife of the Colonel of a Burma Rifles Battalion fighting down south, that a Woman’s Auxiliary Service was being formed, of which she might be Commandant. She said that if I joined there was every possibility that I would be posted away from Rangoon, Victor felt that though he hated the idea of our being separated, this would be a good idea, as due to our proximity to the airfield, our nights were becoming more and more disturbed, with frequent excursions to the trenches. For that reason he felt it would be difficult for me to continue working at R.A.F. H.Q. during the day.
He told me that a bomb had been dropped in the garden of our former quarter in Fane Road and that Colonel Bagot had evacuated his office and was operating from the control room. Finally he said “now that the little yellow men have got as far as Tavoy I cannot think, somehow, that it will be very long before we ourselves are on the move.” He added that he was accelerating the packing up of our possessions. Incidentally, whether these were ever actually moved to Maymyo I don’t know, but in any case I never saw them again.
Before I had time to comment on his remarks about the W.A.S. I received another letter from him enclosing a note from Nin Taylor suggesting that we should move in with her at her house in Punjab Road, which was about half a mile further away from the airfield, so would be a little quieter and safer. He added “if we were to be ordered off suddenly I should feel you were as safe with her as anywhere and that you would have someone very competent with whom to concert future plans – in fact as competent as a good many men.” I imagine that at that time he envisaged the regiment being sent south and possibly even the eventual fall of Rangoon, though not for some time. It was by now obvious to me that the situation was rapidly deteriorating and all sorts of rumours were circulating in Maymyo, so I wired to Victor asking if I could return as soon as possible, to which he wired back “situation normal no cause for alarm agree arrival Thursday if fit.” I could only imagine that the optimistic part of the telegram was for the benefit of the Post Office! So on the 27th January I embarked on my last train journey back to Rangoon. When we were on the outskirts of the city the train stopped and we were all ordered to get out and take shelter in the culverts at the side of the track as there was an air raid going on. From there we had a very good view of the whole affair, bombs being dropped and dog-fights going on all round and over our heads. Victor was on the platform to meet me and took me to our house in Park Lane and eventually to Nin Taylor’s where we were to spend our last three weeks together.
The next day I reported back to R.A.F. H.Q. where I was given a great welcome and decided that I would much prefer to stay with them than to join W.A.S. At that point the few British women secretaries were asked whether, in the event of H.Q. being forced to leave Rangoon and move up north, we would be prepared to accompany them possibly even to China, rather than being evacuated to India, to which I personally agreed and I think the others did also.
The details of the following weeks are rather hazy in my mind, but I can remember Nin’s calmness and thoughtfulness for our comfort and Victor’s steadfast cheerfulness in the midst of an increasing sense of impending catastrophe. Nin’s cook had disappeared and her faithful Gurkha bearer, Gambu, who had been with her husband for 16 years, had taken on his job. Her dhobi (washerman) and sweeper were still there and our Indian bearer, Swamy was still struggling on. I wondered later whether he and his wife and small family survived the awful trek to India, but rather doubt it.
We did not get up in the nights quite so often, though the ringing of a hand-bell somewhere near us, warning of the approach of raiders usually woke us up and if the Jap. planes seemed to be coming very near we would go to our trench and watch their navigating lights twinkling as they flew over us.
Nin was away all day at Army H.Q. on cipher duty with the 65 remaining members of the W.A.S. of which she was Commandant, the main group of about 350 having been evacuated by sea to India with the original Commandant some weeks earlier, so we were all away all day and only met for our breakfast and dinner and a “chota peg” i.e. whisky and soda, which was the usual pick-me-up in the tropics.
On the 10th February, Victor and I celebrated (though this was hardly the right word under the circumstances) our sixth wedding anniversary and were much touched to receive a charming note from the regiments Mess Sergeant, George Ransome, wishing us many happy returns and hoping this would be our last wartime anniversary. This was typical of this sterling character who, sad to relate, was later to be reported missing, presumed dead during the long retreat.
The news from the south got steadily worse. We knew that Singapore had fallen and that 17th Division had had to retreat from Moulmein. Nin startled me one day by offering to give me a pill which I could take if I fell into Jap. hands, on the basis of that being “a fate worse than death.” I refused it, as I could not seriously imaging the possibility of such a fate and was sure I would not be brave enough to take it.
Then suddenly the blow fell. I came back from R.A.F. H.Q. on the evening of the 19th February to find Nin hectically packing a suitcase, as she had received orders to leave next day with the W.A.S. contingent for Maymyo, where they would again be attached to Army H.Q. which would be moving up there in the near future. Though we at R.A.F. H.Q. had received no such orders, I felt certain it would not be long before we followed suit, but even so it was a shock when, on arriving at H.Q. next morning, 20th February, I was told that all the women on the staff were to be evacuated up-country immediately. We were given a choice of either leaving that afternoon in an R.A.F. convoy by road, in which case we could take one suitcase, or next morning by air, when we could only take a very small amount of luggage, in fact an over-night bag. I said that I could not decide until I had seen Victor and arrangements were made for me to be driven back to Mingaladon in an R.A.F. truck, as for a reason I cannot remember I had apparently not come by car.
So we set off at once and I am afraid my driver must have had a very trying journey as I wept copiously, though silently, the whole way. Though I had realised the parting could not be far off, now that it had actually arrived I was shattered. Somehow, I got in touch with Victor and we both agreed after talking it over as calmly as we could, that it would be best for me to go at once, not only because I could take more belongings with me, but also because we neither of us felt we could face prolonging the agony of farewell. So after a hurried lunch we set off for Rangoon in the car. For some time I had had a suitcase packed ready so had only to put in a few final necessities. Victor optimistically brought our precious boxes of butterflies, which he had had specially packed in two canvas holders with handles and a small box of stores, which we hoped to persuade someone to stow somewhere in a truck. We arrived at H.Q. to find chaos, everyone running to and fro and no one could tell us where to go or when the convoy would leave. Victor could not stay very long as he had urgent duties at Mingaladon and in any case it was better not to linger, so we hurriedly embraced and he left, his last words being “see you at Hylda’s after all this is over,” Hylda being a very dear friend through whom we first met in Bombay.
Eventually everything was sorted out and our convoy got going. I had a seat in a saloon car driven by the leader, Wing-Commander Crauford, a Canadian, who had only arrived a week before. Another secretary, Peggy Jupp, wife of a Burma Police Officer was also in the car and I think one other. We were to pick up some more lorries and another R.A.F. Officer called Timmis and his wife at Mingaladon and as we arrived there I saw Victor sitting in a jeep near-by looking very disconsolate. Somehow he had managed to find out what time we should be passing through and could not resist the chance of a few more words. During the drive to Mingaladon Peggy and I, who were used to long driver up-country, had discovered that no provision had been made for drinking water, which is an absolute necessity in a hot and humid climate such as Burma. The Timmis’ had not arrived, so I asked the Wing-Commander if I could go and see if I could get some bottles of drinking water from our house, to which he agreed. So, followed by Victor in the jeep we were driven rapidly round to 6 Punjab Road. To my astonishment, when we rushed into the kitchen we found about half a dozen bottles full of water on the table. It turned out that Nin, who had left that morning, had asked Gambu to put them ready for her to take, but in the rush had forgotten them, so she, poor dear, and her companions on the long train journey north, had no drinking water and suffered accordingly. I should mention that in those days all drinking water had to be boiled and was usually kept in empty gin bottles.
Once again the awful moment of parting was upon us, even more painful than the first and I shall never forget my last sight of Victor, his eyes full of tears, standing on the steps of the house, as I said to the driver “go, quickly!” What made it much worse was that we did not leave Mingaladon for another two hours, as the Timmis’ were delayed and we had to wait for them. We spent the time sitting on the verandah of the Ordnance Club being plied with drinks. It was awful knowing Victor was so near, but I simply couldn’t face parting again for the third time, even if I could have contacted him. Eventually, we got away at about 6.30 p.m. by which time it was of course quite dark. Later I realised that it was exactly six years to the day on the 20th February, 1936, that we entered our first home, Windy Hall, Colaba, Bombay, at the end of our honeymoon and “Griff” our Quarter-Master, writing to me later from hospital in Poona, where he was still being treated for the wounds received in the first air-raid, told me that the number 6 was an important one for me (he was a member of the Magic Circle and a numerologist,) and certainly this was true in relation to the particular period in my life.
Our convoy of about a dozen lorries was part of an enormous one heading north from Rangoon and it was very difficult to keep ours together. The Timmis’ led in their little Morris 8 and we brought up the rear. The dust was appalling and our progress was very slow. There were frequent stoppages and Crauford terrified Peggy and me by constantly rushing forward to find out what was happening, nearly turning the car over into the culvert at the edge of the road. At about 1.30 a.m. on coming round a bend in the road, we found to our horror that a lorry had gone right over the edge into a steep kud (ditch) about 30 feet in depth. At first we thought it was one of ours, but when we got out of our car we found it had been full of Indians who were lying about in a terrible state, either dead or seriously injured, those who were conscious shrieking and yelling their heads off, it really was a nightmare. The R.A.F. chaps were wonderful, lifting the lorry off those trapped underneath and carrying all those who could not walk up to the road, where they were laid out in rows, including the unconscious and the dead. Mrs Timmis, who was a doctor, had a medical chest with her and gave some of them morphia injections. Peggy and a little Anglo-Indian were wonderful too. I felt very helpless but did what I could. It turned out it was a Port Commissioner’s lorry full of clerks, files and paper money, in charge of a European driving his own car, who was quite useless. Eventually the worst cases were put into our lorries and cars (we had a man with an injured back in ours) and we took them along to the nearest hospital, a small one in a village 20 miles away, where we had to leave them, hoping that the less badly injured at least would eventually recover, but with serious doubts about the rest.
All this delayed us for nearly two hours and it was 10 a.m. before we arrived at Prome, where the local Police Commissioner, Mr Phipps (whom Victor and I knew well) had prepared dinner for us the night before and couldn’t think what had become of us. In company with sundry other refugees we consumed an enormous breakfast of last night’s dinner, the airmen being fed elsewhere, and left again at noon. During the afternoon and evening there were a series of delays and mishaps and we did not finally arrive at our destination, Magwe, about 200 miles north of Rangoon, until about 9 p.m. feeling extremely tired.
The airfield at Magwe was the only one big enough for bombers and fighters if the one at Mingaladon was captured and there was already a nucleus of ground-staff stationed there who had been warned of our arrival. We found that a large dormitory had been prepared over a sort of transit mess for us and other R.A.F. females who had left Rangoon after us. It contained ready made-up beds with mosquito nets and no sanitary arrangements whatever. However, it was quite near the house of the District Commissioner, Jim Lindop, who kindly provided us with hot baths and had a hole dug in his garden with a screen round it to serve as a latrine. He and his wife Janet were being absolutely marvellous, producing endless bowels of curry and rice and drinking water for the growing stream of refugees, European, Indian, Anglo-Indian etc. passing through and we had all our meals with them. I was to meet them again later in Assam, after they had both walked out independently, as Jim stayed “till the last possible moment,” on the ghastly 150 mile route over the mountains on which so many refugees died of exhaustion or disease, there being no road between India and Burma at that time. Janet organised a big refugee camp on the borders of Assam and was awarded an M.B.E. for her valuable work. Later still she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) of which I was by then already a member and became a great friend of mine. After the war, when I stayed with them in Scotland, I met again their black and white spaniel Nell, who had walked out with Janet and who had just had fifteen puppies!
But to return to the immediate present, Peggy and I had, as I mentioned earlier, agreed to accompany R.A.F. H.Q. up north, possibly to China and still expected this would be the plan and waited as patiently as we could for further news and instructions. But what we did not know was that since our hurried departure from Rangoon on the 20th February, the situation in the south had rapidly deteriorated and had become a desperate race between 17th Division and the Japs. for the one bridge over the river Sittang, which was the only escape route for the Division. On the 21st the bridge had been made ready for demolition but two thirds of the Division had still to cross it and General Smyth had the awful decision to make, whether to wait for them with the possibility of the Japs. over-running them completely before they could blow up the bridge and therefore leaving the way open for them to capture Rangoon or to blow it up leaving the rest of the Division stranded. Eventually he took the latter course and at 3 a.m. on the 23rd gave the order for the demolition. Much has been written about the rights and wrongs of his decision and the reasons for it and General Smyth’s military career was finished as a result of it. In the event the sacrifice of about 150 officers and 3,000 other ranks of 17th Division either killed, wounded or taken prisoner was in vain, as the Japs. advance was not delayed very long and three weeks later they captured Rangoon. There was however, one consolation, they did not succeed in preventing the remainder of the Division withdrawing to Pegu and later to India, where eventually they became the nucleus of a new 17th Division, which took part in the re-capture of Burma under the command of General “Punch” Cowan in 1945.
Though the R.A.F. continued bravely to fight the Japs. after the final battle over Rangoon the total Allied fighter strength was only six flyable aircraft facing about 250 Japs. and long before that it must have been decided that the future was too uncertain to justify keeping women on the staff and the order was given to evacuate us by air. So after a few days in Magwe, Peggy and I were told to be ready to move again, this time by air, taking with us the absolute minimum of luggage. As I mentioned earlier, Victor had taken two boxes of butterflies with me to R.A.F. H.Q. Since we arrived at Magwe they had been under my bed and I was determined to try to take them with me. In the end I was allowed to take one, with a vague promise that the second would follow later. Apart from this I was only allowed a pillow-slip of necessities and a few articles of clothing and a small case containing a few pieces of jewellery, my passport, some rolls of negatives of photos taken during the last six years and all Victor’s letters to me. As I walked across the airstrip to the bomber waiting to fly us out, the R.A.F. chap accompanying me asked what was in the canvas covered box he was carrying for me which was so light in weight. When I answered “butterflies” he said “you must be mad!” to which I replied “not at all, they are worth far more to me than clothes!” As indeed they were, representing as they did so many hours spent with Victor in jungles collecting them and also spent by Victor in labelling and setting them. In the event the second box did follow me, though it was sheer luck that I noticed it after several days standing in the corner of the hall at the hotel where we were staying. The box with the most beautiful specimens I have with me at this moment, still in good condition and the rest are with Meynell and Vi Hackney, our Bombay friends who originally taught us how to collect them. At the time I arrived in Calcutta they were still in Bombay and I persuaded someone going over there by train to take them and deliver them to them. When Meynell was called up he put he them with his own collection and that of another friend who was later killed, in the Bombay Natural History Museum “till the end of the war.” Later he brought them all home to Scotland where eventually I saw them again 23 years later in 1965, a poignant reminder of a life that already seemed like a dream.
We had been told that we were being flown to Akyab, a small port with an airstrip on the west coast of Burma, which we understood would be R.A.F. H.Q. if Rangoon fell, but after takeoff we discovered that our destination was Calcutta. This was a severe blow, as it obviously meant that the news from the south was very bad and the future looked black. It was an uncomfortable journey as the bomber was of course not equipped for passengers, so we sat on the floor for the two hours or so of a turbulent flight and on arrival were rather disconcerted to find that we were being taken to the Grand Hotel, as we were wearing shorts, not so unusual for women in those days and certainly not for one of the best hotels in Calcutta. But we need not have worried as we found it has been requisitioned as a sort of transit camp for officers who had been flown out from northern Burma with little or no belongings.
My memory of the next few days is very blurred. It was a terrific shock to find myself, so soon after leaving Victor and our familiar surroundings, hundreds of miles away in the midst of a seething crowd of people, all complete strangers except for a small number whom I had only known for a comparatively short time. Rumours abounded and everyone was very jumpy. The hotel was overcrowded and I was given a bed in a room with several other strange females. Peggy and I agreed to stick together and were taken to a W.V.S. depot and allowed to choose some dresses and other garments, which had been given by local members and for which we were very grateful. After several days we were told that we were to be billeted in a “Chummery” flat belonging to Duncan Bros. a firm of tea merchants. When we arrived we found three men, two in their mid-thirties and one quite a bit older who gave us a very warm welcome and did everything they could to make us comfortable. In our bedrooms we found talcum and shampoo power, scented soap etc., which they had bought for us.
At about this time we were asked if we would like to take on jobs with Force 136, an intelligence service operating under the cover of General Liaison Office and mainly concerned with decoding secret messages from behind enemy lines in Burma, Malaya etc. This we gladly agreed to do as it seemed unlikely there would be any opening for us with the R.A.F. now that we had left Burma. Not only was the work interesting but it also brought in some extra and much needed cash.
It was a relief to get away from the crowds at the hotel and to have something worthwhile to occupy us during the day, but we were both very anxious about our husbands and an atmosphere of unreality and uncertainty about the future was strong. Soon after we moved in I received a short note from Victor written directly after we parted, which was a great comfort. Foolishly, I carried it around with me in my notecase in my handbag and not long afterwards, to my grief and fury, the notecase was stolen when we were out somewhere one evening. It was another month before a second letter arrived, begun on Regimental “Back Badge” Day (21st March) which was also Victor’s 47th Birthday and finished on the 24th. In it he said he had received one letter from me and was sorry to hear I had only had his first one, as he had written at last three others. He also wrote, or rather typed, with his usual calm and cheerful outlook:-
“I sit typing this in the shade of a leafy tree in the compound of a villager, who has provided me with a table and chair and a grand wooden tub in which, each evening, I am able to take my bath, immersed to the shoulders and usually with a small circle of squatting and interested spectators! It’s a grand life, so long as the Nips don’t interrupt it!... The stock of the 28th is pretty high in the Division and if you should be in touch with Finetta at all you might tell her that whatever success that the Regt. has achieved in the past few days has been due ENTIRELY to the genius - and no other word will suit – in planning and direction of her Charles, our incomparable C.O. He is, and has been magnificent and my perpetual fear is that he will be whisked off ere long in the direction of even bigger things.”
A long time afterwards I learnt that this was a reference to the Battle of Letpadan, where on the 19th March the Glosters had ambushed and defeated a Japanese battalion. This was literally the first time the Japs. had suffered a reverse since they over-ran South-East Asia and Colonel Bagot received a telegram of congratulations from the G.O.C. Burma, General Alexander. It was also the only defeat they suffered during the retreat of the British Army from Burma in 1942.
Near the end of his letter Victor said:-
“I trust this may get through to you reasonably quickly, to re-assure you that, under God’s guidance, you may trust Charles to redeem his promise to get the 28th through, not only safely, but with honour.”
This envelope was stamped Base P.O. Burma, 29th March, Victor was killed on the 30th in the Battle of Shwedaung and this was the last letter I received.
For several weeks before this I had been going to the Military Hospital to visit wounded Glosters who had begun to arrive there. As far as I knew, I was the only regimental wife in Calcutta, so it was obviously my duty to do so, apart from the fact the I wanted to and also I hoped I might hear news of Victor, but they could tell me nothing (or perhaps felt unable to do so,) but were full of praise for the Colonel, who they said, deserved a V.C. for his bravery at the first road-block the regiment was faced with on the 7th March, when they marched straight out of barracks into action. This was the day that Rangoon fell and General Alexander, who had only just taken over command of the Burma Army, was within an ace of being trapped and taken prisoner with all his staff.
Actually the first casualties to arrive had been R.A.F. On the 21st March Magwe had been savagely bombed by the Japs. and though the four Hurricanes and six P. 40’s, which were all that remained of the Air Force, took off and tried to intercept the Japs. they were overwhelmed. Next day the Japs. attacked Akyab and the last remnants of the gallant Air Force were finally destroyed leaving the retreating army with no air cover at all. Some of the R.A.F. casualties were in the same ward as some Glosters and I shall never forget two in particular. One had had the whole of one side of his face shot away and had to be spoon-fed (drip-feed was not then available.) Yet he was sitting up in bed trying to read. Janet Lindop, who had by that time arrived in Calcutta, was sitting next to him, every now and then giving him a drink. The other had been terribly badly burnt and was swathed in bandages from head to foot, lying on a sort of hammock and obviously in terrible pain. A few days later when wounded soldiers began to arrive in large numbers all occupants of the ward were moved out and sent up-country in a hospital train and we heard later that the burnt airman had died during the journey. Probably he would have died anyway, but it seemed to us that he should not have been moved. But the choice between moving those already in hospital and sending new-comers up-country must have been a difficult one.
No one could give me any definite news of Victor, though there was a vague story that he had been wounded and picked up by a tank. This was not very re-assuring and I could not help feeling extremely anxious. The one thing I dreaded was that he should have been wounded and taken prisoner. I went to the Calcutta Station Commander, Brigadier Williams and asked him if he could find out if there was any truth in this rumour which he promised to do.
After Peggy and I had been in the Chummery for about eight weeks it became obvious that, kind though they were, our hosts were beginning to find our presence rather irksome, so we made enquiries about a possible move and eventually were offered hospitality by Mr Andrew Cameron, a business man whose wife had gone up to a hill station for the hot weather. He was extremely kind and friendly and made us feel very much at home and his house was very much cooler and pleasanter than the Chummery flat. This was early in May when Calcutta was extremely hot.
Peggy and I both continued visiting the hospital whenever we could and amongst newly-arrived Glosters I was especially pleased to see Capt. Terry Dillon, whom I knew well in the happy days at Mingaladon. He was not wounded, but suffering from dysentery or malaria or both and looked very thin and ill. Naturally I asked him about the story of the tank but he was unable to give me any definite news. But two days later he somehow got a message to Peggy asking her to visit him on her own and that evening she broke it to me in the gentlest possible way, that Terry had asked her to tell me that Victor had been killed at Shwedaung on the 30th March, as he simply could not face telling me himself.
It was not until after the war was ended that I heard the full story of the battle, in which the 28th had been surrounded and pinned down by the enemy and attacked from all sides and from the air, after clearing the road through the village so that brigade H.Q. and the tanks of the Armoured Brigade could go through and it was not until many years after that I read the following account of Victor’s death in the book “From Rangoon to Kohima” by T.A.K. Dillon, published in 1979.
The account tells how, much of the battalion’s transport having been destroyed and the one remaining ambulance having been loaded up and driven out after the tanks, Colonel Bagot ordered Victor to go forward with what was left of the transport, whilst he himself remained behind and collected the remainder of the 28th, including some walking wounded and attempted to break out across country.
The account continues:-
“One of the obstacles preventing the forward flow of vehicles was a stationary armoured car belonging to the 28th which stood in a narrow part of the road on a culvert. The banks of each side of the road ran steeply down to monsoon ditches making it impossible for wheeled vehicles to get past. Up until now anyone approaching the armoured car to move it had been shot by a Japanese firing a machine gun from a tree. The driver had been shot in this way. Entrusted as he had been with the task of getting the transport and men of the 28th away, Major Morton made a determined effort to get to the armoured car and drive it out of the way himself. Under cover of a fierce exchange of fire Major Morton made a dash for the vehicle. He got to it, but as he struggled to get in the Japanese machine gunner fired and hit him several times. A second later the Jap. was blown to pieces by a tank gun. To those who ran to his assistance Victor Morton said “Get these lads to Prome as best you can: goodbye and good luck Glosters.” He then died. So was lost to the regiment a revered and much loved office, whose first concern had always been the well-being of the soldiers. He was a gallant officer and he died bravely in the service of his fellow men. His sense of humour and fun had never deserted him. It was this and his great kindness and consideration for others, particularly in those days of tribulation, which had been a source of strength and inspiration to those fortunate enough to have served with him. He had been a personal friend of the C.O. and his confident in time of need. They had compete trust in each other and their teamwork had ensured that the 28th would survive one of its greatest trials with honour.”
The battalion suffered great losses and was scattered in all directions. Colonel Bagot, who was wounded in the leg and about 40 men, after a difficult cross-country journey, succeeded in reaching Divn. H.Q. and eventually the battalion, comprising seven officers and 240 N.C.O’s and men, was re-formed under a temporary C.O. as Colonel Bagot was sent to hospital in Maymyo. Later he resumed command and after much desperate fighting, led the remnants of the battalion over the high mountain ranges to India, finally crossing the border into Assam.
But that evening in Calcutta all I knew was that I should never see Victor again in this life and I can vividly remember lying awake and quite rigid all night without being able to shed a tear. My only consolation was that he was not, as I had feared might happen, wounded and taken prisoner.
It was a mercy that I had something to occupy me in the daytime and everyone was extremely kind and sympathetic and none more than Mr Cameron. It was, therefore, quite a shock when only a few days later he told us that he was very sorry he could not keep us any longer. From something he said we got the impression that his wife did not like us being there and he was obviously very embarrassed and distressed about it. Five years later, after the partition of India and Pakistan, I read a report in the Daily Telegraph that he had been killed trying to save his two Moslem servants from a riotous crowd of Hindus while returning to Calcutta from a visit to a home for children run by an Indian Doctor. This was very much in character, but I was surprised to read also that he had been President, Chamber of Commerce and a leading European in India, as he was so modest that we had no idea how distinguished he was. The report also said that an orphanage was to be built in West Bengal as a memorial to him.
So once again we had to move and this time we decided to book into a small private hotel which was recommended to us. I was still in a state of shock and lived from day to day. Peggy still had no news of her husband Jerry, but hoped that no news was good news and not long afterwards this proved to be true and he turned up, very exhausted after a long trek out and was immediately granted leave to go to Simla to recuperate. Peggy was quite worried about leaving me and I was naturally sad to see her go after all we had been through together. I little thought that the next time we met would be in Rangoon in 1947, which is another story. I have never forgotten her great kindness to me and her strength and calmness through a very difficult time. We kept in touch right up to her death in June 1979, after a long and brave struggle against cancer. Jerry died not very long after the war, as a result I believe of the strain of the terrible journey out, as so many others did.
I stayed on at the hotel for a week to two but was very lonely there by myself and when my little gold regimental brooch, given to me by Victor, was stolen from my dressing table one night by a thief climbing silently through the open window (as it was only too easy for an Indian to do, wearing no shoes and probably greased all over so that he could easily escape if caught) I decided I must move again, but where to? I still had no idea what I should do eventually. It was obvious that I should have to get a secretarial job of some kind, as Force 136 was only temporary and badly paid, my Army widow’s pension would be small and I had very little private income. I had no wish to go home to England, but even if I had, it would not have been possible to get a passage as the U-boat warfare was in full swing. Someone suggested that I should apply for a vacant post on the secretarial staff at the British Embassy in Teheran, but I decided I would rather stay in India, where I had friends and in the light of after events, I am thankful I did so.
But where to live at the moment was the immediate problem. Then I suddenly had a brainwave. As I had as yet received no official communication of Victor’s death and was therefore presumably still “on the strength” surely I could apply for an Army “quarter” somewhere in Calcutta. So I went once more to see Brigadier Williams and after a few days he told me that the wife of an R.A.F. officer who was away up-country had agreed to let me share her flat in the fort, as no Army quarter was available. Thankfully I left the hotel and moved in on about the 15th May. Though the flat was very small it was quiet and I felt more secure. I saw very little of my hostess as I was out all day and she seemed to be leading a very social life in the evenings.
During the next few weeks I still lived in a kind of a unreal dazed state and when one evening (about the 18th June) as I was sitting reading, I heard footsteps coming slowly up to the front door, for one wild moment I thought that by some miracle it might be Victor and that after all he hadn’t been killed, but when I opened the door, to my astonishment, Charles Bagot was standing there. He looked so thin and gaunt I hardly recognised him and was obviously terrible tired and I was quite overcome at seeing him. He sat down and as though in a dream, began to tell me the story of the terrible retreat from Rangoon to India, of Victor’s death at Shwedaung and of his own struggle through the night after he was wounded in the battle. He also told me with bitterness of their reception at Imphal where Army H.Q. had made no preparation for their arrival and they were forced to camp on a hill-side in pouring rain. It transpired that he had received orders to come down to Calcutta with a small party of officers and other ranks of the 28th to see the Regimental Colonel-in-Chief, the Duke of Gloucester, who was staying at Government House and that Brigadier Williams had arranged for them to stay at the Fort and had given him my address. He told me that Finetta and Veronica were in Murree with the families and how much he longed to see them but had to return to the battalion in Assam for the time being.
It was quite impossible to put into words my feelings during and after his visit. They were a mixture of joy at seeing him, sadness at the suffering he had experienced which was so evident in his face, nostalgia for the happy days now gone forever and an intense yearning for Victor, whom I knew for certain had really gone and I was deeply grateful to Charles for coming to see me and telling me the whole story himself.
I now knew beyond any doubt whatever, that I had got to face up to a new life on my own once more and shortly afterwards I received official notification of Victor’s death from Army H.Q. Simla. The decision to leave Calcutta was finally forced on me by the effects of the extreme heat which I had been experiencing for the last few months, with the very high humidity peculiar to Calcutta making me literally physically sick and unable to keep down solid food. The months of early 1942 were the hottest in India for many years and Calcutta residents said that nothing like it had been known since the 1860’s. Indians in unprecedented numbers were dying in the streets and their bodies remained uncollected. The arrival of the monsoon at the end of May brought no relief but only increased humidity, so that one lived in a constant state of damp sweat and a times felt as if one was being suffocated.
Wings of the Phoenix - The official story of the Air War in Burma reports:-
“They were strange days in Calcutta, impossible to forget for those who lived through them... the abnormal atmosphere was heightened by Calcutta suddenly having become a refugee town. The hotels, which had been turned into Messes, were filled with sailors without ships, air crews without aircraft, soldiers awaiting an Army.”
As well as all this there were other things to contend with, such as constant rumours and reports about the possibility of an invasion of India by the victorious Japanese army and of air-raids and harrowing stories of the streams of refugees struggling up and down mountains between Burma and India through dense jungle hoping to reach Assam before the monsoon finally broke, many of them dying on the way from disease and exhaustion. A large majority of them were Indians who, as in many parts of Africa, had been an important, but not very popular factor in the economic life of Burma. But there were also many Britons, Government employees, Forest Officer, business men etc. who had been caught by the rapid advance of the Japs. and had been unable to get away by sea or air.
A book “Forgotten Frontier” tells the story of their sufferings and of the part played by the Tea Planters of north-east India in helping thousands of these refugees to reach Assam, giving the numbers of those saved as almost 100,000. A better known book “Elephant Bill” written by J.H. Williams (a.k.a. Elephant Bill) describes how he led a party of wives and children of the Bombay Burma Company (employed in the teak forests) and forty elephants over the mountains, a trek which would have ended in disaster had it not been for the leading elephant, Bandoola, with great courage, climbing up a narrow path, with a precipice once side.
I was indeed luck to have been flown out.
Finetta had written to me asking if I would like to go and share her small cottage in Murree, so, feeling at the end of my tether, I wrote gratefully accepting her invitation, asked for my release from Force 136 and travelled up there by train about the beginning of July. It was a tremendous relief to be up in the cool air of the hills and out of the heat and turmoil of Calcutta and wonderful to see FInetta and Veronica again as well as Mollie, David and Deirdre Bath and Winnie and Sara Sharpe, and the other ranks wives. I almost felt as if the events of the last few months were part of a bad dream and that eventually we should all return to the old life with the battalion. Our cottages were a mile or so away from the little hill station itself with marvellous views all round. We used to walk up to the little shops nearly every day and somehow I discovered that my former R.A.F. boss, Group Captain Manning, was ill in the local hospital, so I went to visit him. It was good to see him again and I was glad to find his illness was not too serious. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him afterwards but imagine he eventually went back to Australia.
Some weeks later wonderful letters of sympathy began to arrive from people who had heard about Victor, or to whom I had written. He was very much loved and more than one person described him as “one of God’s own.” One tribute which specially moved me came from a Rangoon friend, herself a refugee, who wrote:-
“Of all the people killed in this show, Victor would be the one who would have no fear of crossing over. His faith would carry him through to the end with courage and a quiet mind. I have always felt he had something special about him, that gave him an insight into the beyond.”
Vithal, our dear old Hindu bearer in Bombay, wrote (through a letter writer, as he himself could not write English):-
“I am much shocked to hear of the sad news of the sudden death of my kind and beloved master, whom I cannot forget as long as I live and I think that my right hand is broken. I was daily remembering him in my prayer and this sad news has upset me greatly, but God’s will be done.”
I also received a wonderful letter from Victor’s father, heartbroken but full of faith. It was not till very much later that I heard that he and Victor’s mother had been taken into the British Chaplain’s house with other British residents when the Germans invaded Tunis, where they lived and that soon afterwards he had broken his hip and later died.
Victor’s daughter Pauline aged 20, who was in England working as a V.A.D. was quite overwhelmed and touched me very much by her concern for me. I am very glad that in his last letter to me Victor mentioned receiving two letters from her. It was very sad that they had not seen each other since she was 17 so that inevitably her memory of him must fade as years go by.
Sometime later Charles came on leave, still very thin, but looking better than when I saw him in Calcutta. He had no warm clothes so we all set to and knitted him a pullover in record time.
But though I was very thankful for the rest and change of air and the companionship of close friends, the question of my future still had to be settled. Then suddenly, towards the end of August, out of the blue came a telegram from Nin Taylor saying that she had received permission to re-form the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma), later unofficially known as “Wasbies,” which had been disbanded after their evacuation, to be a mobile canteen for the eventual re-capture of Burma and asking me to join her in Delhi, with a view to starting the first canteen in Shillong, Assam, where 17th Division were resting and licking their wounds. Needless to say I was thrilled at this totally unexpected answer to all my prayers and wired an immediate acceptance. So, after a rush being fitted for uniforms made by a local dhirze (tailor) and collecting gear suitable for Army life, I left to start a new life which was to last till 1946 and prove to be an intensely exciting and absorbing experience.
Lois St. John, Nin Taylor and Joan Morton
WASBIES - 1942-1946
In the last chapter I told how Nin Taylor and the remaining 65 Wasbies moved up to Maymyo to continue their cipher work at Army H.Q. Eventually, as the situation deteriorated, they moved again with Army H.Q. to Shwebo and finally it was decided that they must be flown out and after an exhausting and dangerous train journey, they were evacuated to Calcutta on the 5th may in the last plane to leave Burma and finally arrived in Simla, where they were disbanded, the Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burman girls joined the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India) and forming the original nucleus of that Unit. Nin, however, immediately set about the task of re-forming a unit as a mobile canteen service for Burma Command; authority for this was given by Army H.Q. and personnel for the first team was recruited.
During the next few years it was to prove a unique organisation of which Nin was a wonderful leader. Very good-looking, with a strong personality and a lively sense of humour, she won the respect, not only of everyone in the Service, but of all the Army personnel with whom she had to deal, from the C. in C. 14th Army , Field-Marshall “Bill” Slim downwards.
Beginning with one team of six stationed in Shillong during the winter of 1942/43, new recruits were enrolled as the demand for canteens increased and the number of Wasbies rose from 6 in 1942 to 35 in 1943, 70 in 1944 and over 200 in 1945. To begin with we were much on probation as far as the Army was concerned, but gradually as we proved ourselves to be reliable and efficient and most important, appreciated by the troops, we were allowed to expand and finally to move forward close behind 14th Army, often within sound of the guns.
The first winter in Shillong we spent in great comfort in a beautifully furnished house (Clevelands) which had been either commandeered by or let to the Army. But as we expanded the teams usually lived in tents or bashas, sometimes in great heat and much discomfort. The work was hard, as not only did we have to sell the goods, such as cigarettes, soap, razor blades etc, and cups of tea and cakes to the troops, but we also had to re-stock the canteen every evening, order and collect stores from the bulk depots and produce accounts (not one of our strong points!)
Like the troops, we wore jungle green uniform, dresses and berets or headscarves during the day, shirts and slacks after dart to protect our legs from mosquito bites. Our “regimental” badge was a small black chinthe (replica of the stone dog-lions which guard pagodas in Burma) which we wore on our collars. Each team consisted of a Lieutenant (in charge) a Sergeant ad two Privates, with an Indian cook and assistant to make the cakes and a British Tommy to drive the canteen. To return to my own story- After a few days in Delhi settling various details, Nin and travelled to Calcutta by train to see my old friend Brigadier Williams before going on to Shillong which was also under his jurisdiction. Our inauguration into Women’s Service Life was not without its humorous side. Nin tended to get the giggles when saluted by Army Officers of a lower rank than hers (Major) and her return salute was usually too late and quite unorthodox. During the taxi drive to the station a spark from her cigarette burnt a small hole in the skirt of her uniform (embarrassing as we did not were petticoats!) As Brigadier Williams hurried to meet us in his front hall he slipped and landed on his back and later I noticed his rather amused glance at Nin’s shoulder tabs and realised her Major’s crown was upside down! Not so humorous was the fact that during the night journey, her watch and purse had been stolen from the pocket of her uniform hanging up near the open carriage window, evidently while standing in a station.
The other five members of our team had already settled in when we arrived at Clevelands, which was to be our home for six months and our H.Q. for four years. One of them Gay Tucker, was an old friend of Mingaladon days, where her husband was a Major in the Burma Rifles, two others were also connected with Burma, Nan Scott, whose husband, Major-General Bruce Scott, was serving with 17th Division and Prue Bankes, whose husband Peter was in the Chin Levies patrolling the Burma Border.
Though the work was hard, the climate was good, with wonderful views of the mountains and when off duty we could relax in the comfortable furnishings. On Saturday evenings we often went to the little local club, where we met friends from 17th Division. I was the only widow in the team and though thankful to be living with such sympathetic companions and occupied with worthwhile work, it was inevitable that at times my yearning for Victor and my happy years with him should make me feel depressed. Christmas was a specially difficult time.
Early in 1943 permission was given to start a canteen in Tinsukia, a large tea-estate nearer the border of Assam, where there was an important air base and Nin sent me there as officer in charge with Prue Bankes as No. 2. This move with its increased responsibility helped me to shake off thoughts of the past and concentrate on the present. In contrast to Clevelands we lived in an empty tea-planters bungalow, the only furniture being camp beds, wooden chairs and tables and tin bath tubs. Our first task was to put down strong anti-insect powder all round the walls to kill the cockroaches which we saw rushing away when we put on the lights. There were anti-aircraft guns all round the base which we had to visit.
Some American airmen lived in great luxury in air-conditioned buildings not far away but we did not grudge them their comfort as they were engaged on the extremely dangerous task of flying supplies over the Himalayas (known as the hump) to Chiang-Kai-Shek in all kinds of weather and suffered heavy casualties. They often visited our mess and were surprised that we should be allowed on active service as at that time no American Service women were allowed in the area. They were very good company and we got used to drinking gin straight from the bottle which they passed round! The local tea-planters were also very friendly and invited us to join their little club.
By the autumn of 1943, Nin received permission to open two canteens in Imphal, even nearer the border and moved me up there in charge. This was the H.Q. of 4th Corps, which was preparing for the eventual re-entry into Burma as part of the newly-formed 14th Army. While there, we received secret orders to visit a mysterious force training in the jungle, which turned out to be Orde Wingate’s second expedition into Burma. On our lat visit, the men completely clear us out, filling their haversacks with the last tins of biscuits and fruit whey were to have for weeks. Later that night, their gliders were flown low over our heads in the darkness as they set off for their dangerous expedition.Just before I left Tinsukia, Peter Bankes came on leave and he and Prue spent a few weeks in Kashmir. The result of this was that Prue became pregnant and returned to Shillong. Early in 1944 in Imphal, I received a telephone message from somewhere up front, to say that Peter had been killed and asking me to inform Prue. With difficulty, I got through to Nin, telling her the sad news which she had to break to Prue. Prue took it very bravely and the following July, in Shillong hospital, gave birth to a bonny little boy whom she called Peter after his father and asked me to be his Godmother. Now in his mid 30’s he is happily married with two small boys and I am in close touch with him and Prue.
Soon afterwards, on the 6th March 1944, the Japanese Army began an offensive against 17th Division now at Tiddim, 30 miles south on the very borders of Burma, which was not halted till three months later after a desperate battle at Kohima, 50 miles to the north of Imphal on the road to the railhead at Dimapur. As a result of this, we received notice that we were to be evacuated, giving us only twelve hours to stock-take, hand all our supplies back to the depot and pack up our mess equipment and belongings. We finished only half an hour before our armed escort arrived to take us down to Dimapur.
So, almost exactly two years after my evacuation from Burma, I found myself once more in a convoy escaping from the Japs. The party totalled about 14 Wasbies travelling in two mobile canteens and a group of nurses in ambulances. The Japs. had already set up road blocks in the Tiddim area and it was feared that the enemy patrols might cut the Imphal-Dimapur road at any moment, so we did not dawdle! We got through safely but very soon afterwards the Japs. closed the road and Imphal was cut off, leaving 4 Corps surrounded.
At first, we were housed in Dimapur Transit Camp, but very soon we were moved to Jorhat, about 60 miles north east of Dimapur, where reinforcements had arrived in the shape of 33 Corps commanded by Lt.-General Monty Stopford and our canteens immediately began working flat out serving hundreds of troops. Very shortly afterwards a crisis arose, as we were nearly out of stores, the road from Jorhat to Dimapur was threatened by the Japs. and non-operational traffic was banned. It was then that Nin, our stalwart Commandant, who had come down from Shillong, showed her mettle. She set off for Dimapur in a truck with a European officer who did not know the road was closed, got safely through and then walked into H.Q. demanding stores, to be greeted by a stunned silence but when the staff had recovered from their shock, they sent her back with a convoy of trucks full of stores and again she was lucky and got through.
It was about this time that Gay Tucker and I were promoted Area Commanders with the rank of Captain and later Major. Gay’s area was in Arakan in the south-west and mine Assam, and later reconnoitring areas where new canteens were needed, looking after the teams’ welfare, seeing that they were properly housed and had adequate supplies. In effect, we acted as Liaison Officers, such as Corps and Divisional Commanders. This meant a lot of travelling and I was given my own jeep with a wonderful Madrasi driver who could be trusted to take me safely over the most impossible roads. Sometimes, it was necessary to fly and on these occasions I travelled in one of the L.5’s, tiny aircraft holding only a pilot and one passenger, which were employed by the Army over a wide area. The aircraft was open and conversation with the pilot difficult. At times we flew very low to avoid being spotted by enemy aircraft and on one occasion the engine stopped for a breathless moment when we were over thick jungle!In June 1944 Kohima, which had been under siege by the Japs. for three months, was re-captured and very soon afterwards I received orders to move a Wasbie canteen up there. Kohima was high up in the mountains above Dimapur and for weeks we had heard the sound of unceasing gunfire, but it was my first experience of actually seeing a battlefield at close quarters – burnt tree stumps, deserted trenches and dug-outs, pervaded by the sickly smell of Japanese dead bodies. It was a sight I was to become accustomed to during the next twelve months.
Before long our canteens were back in Imphal and the whole atmosphere changed. 14th Army was on the move and so were we, very close behind them. Up till then -I though I hope no one realised it, I had not been completely sure of myself. For the first time in my life I was in a position of considerable responsibility which demanded leadership as well as efficiency and I had been troubled by the inferiority complex and lack of confidence in myself which had been a problem since childhood and which even now still besets me sometimes. But as the pace of events quickened in the changing atmosphere of victory, I was caught up in the sheer excitement of it all and by the demands being made on me and completely forgot myself.
At the beginning of the advance 33 Corps were in the lead and as the campaign developed and our canteens were spread over a wider area I, so to speak, attached myself to H.Q. 33 Corps, using it as my base. One of our teams was also attached to them, so I could always spend a night or two in their mess if necessary. Monty Stopford was a superb leader and his Staff, some of them war-time soldiers, thought the world of him and made a wonderful team. So it was at their H.Q. that I spent Christmas 1944, on the banks of the river Chindwin, the first important obstacle in the advance to be conquered and over which the Engineers had thrown the longest Bailey Bridge in the world. I have a vivid memory of our dancing under the stars with Monty and some of his Staff to gramophone records, knowing that the Japs. were not very far away, a strange and unreal experience.
Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to witness, in company with Nin and other Wasbies in the area, a unique and memorable occasion when Slim paraded himself and his three Corps Commanders, Scoones, Stopford and Christison, to be dubbed as Knights by the Vice-Roy, Lord Wavell, on the Imphal plain to whose victorious defence all four, in different measure, had made their distinctive contributions – Slim by his direction of the whole Army, Scoones by his conduct of the siege, Stopford by the relief of Kohima and Imphal itself and Christison by preventing an initial disaster in Arakan. In sight of the mountains where the Japs. had crept so close, Slim was heard to give one of the most unorthodox orders of his career, “Lieutenant-Generals by the right forward march!” We watched them walk (one really could not call it marching!) forward, obviously nervous, to kneel in turn before the Vice-Roy, watched by a comparatively small number, which included Lord Mountbatten and Slim’s wife Aileen, their son and daughter.
After the crossing of the Chindwin the 14th Army offensive intensified. The next obstacle was the Irrawaddy river, far wider and more dangerous than the Chindwin and this was accomplished at several points during the month of February 1945. As the Army moved further into Burma the question of supplies became more difficult and this of course included the Wasbie canteens and most of it was brought by air. The pace quickened and the teams became adept at striking camp at short notice, pitching it again a few hours later after a difficult journey over appalling roads and opening the canteens again with the minimum of delay. As far as possible I kept in constant tough with them in my area, when necessary by air. After so many years it is difficult to remember details, but a few are still clear in my mind and one is driving along the road to Meiktila soon after it had been re-captured, seeing umpteen Japanese dead bodies lying in the ditches and finding that the Wasbies team under Janet Lindop had had to move their tents after discovering a body under one of them.
Another happier memory, is of a visit to a casualty clearing station to meet Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who was doing a wonderful job as Head of the Red Cross. She sat on the ground in the little wards talking to the wounded, refusing the offer of the only chair and could not have been more informal and sympathetic. Later both she and I dined n the Sister’s Mess and again she was most friendly and easy to talk to.
From now on it was a race to Rangoon, which after bitter fighting was re-occupied on the 3rd May 1945. Right up to the last it was touch and go with the monsoon looming and the supply problem becoming more acute as the Army moved further south and the Japanese resistance proved stiffer than expected. So it was decided that to prevent the possibility of a really tough siege of Rangoon, there should be an amphibious landing of 26th Division from Arakan, which would take it by surprise from the south and link up with 17th Division coming down from the north.
Bill Slim in his book “Defeat into Victory” tells how two days earlier an R.A.F. Pilot flying over the city saw written in huge letters on the roof of the gaol, where the British prisoners had been kept, the words “Japs Gone” and the next day another Pilot from 221 Group with which I had served in 1942/43 had landed on Mingaladon airfield, crashed on the rough surface and had walked into Rangoon on the road I knew so well and visited the prisoners, commandeered a sampan and sailed down the river to meet the advancing 26th Division coming up by boat. It was a fitting end to the re-capture of the city that on the 6th May 1945, a small column of 26th Division should meet up with the 1/7th Gurkha Rifles in 17th Division, who had fired the first shots in the Burma War in January 1942 and had been involved in the Battle of the Sittang river.
Though Rangoon had been taken it was not the end of the war in Burma and the Japs. were not finally driven out by 33 Corps till the beginning of August. During that time Wasbie canteens were still attached to the various Divisions up north under a new Assistant Area Commander. I myself, with two teams, was flown into Rangoon very soon after its re-capture. It was strange that I have no memory at all of landing at Mingaladon or being driven into the city – I can only suppose it was all too unreal. We were installed in an empty house, probably previously occupied by Japs. on the Prome Road on the outskirts, and after giving it a good scrubbing out, were soon very busy running a static canteen at the Boat Club and another at the docks, where hundreds of troops were passing through, either arriving or going on leave.
Soon after we arrived, it was announced that there would be a Victory Parade attended by Lord Mountbatten to celebrate the re-capture of Rangoon and that we must take part in it. Much agitation ensued as we had never appeared on parade, knew nothing about drill and our uniform was not exactly smart after months living under active service conditions. However, we did our best and all went well until just as Supremo, dressed in tropical white uniform, mounted the dais, down came a heavy shower of monsoon rain. For at least half an hour we stood to attention while our dresses clung to us clammily, our hair hung lankly and worst of all the dye from our new berets ran in green streaks down our faces and necks. We were consoled later by being told of the remark of a B.O.R. heard during our march past – “The girls look more appealing when they’re wet!”
During the next two years, in spite of constant travelling in a climate varying from intense dry heat to excessive humidity and monsoon rain, I had kept amazingly fit, but about a month after arriving in Rangoon I was struck down with a bad attack of amoebic dysentery, due probably to eating fresh fruit and vegetables after living almost entirely on tinned food. I was at once sent to hospital, which was already overflowing with Army sick and wounded and spent a couple of weeks in extreme discomfort on a hard bed in a small stone-walled cubicle, one of a row full of women, backing onto another row full of men. There was, as far as I can remember, no lavatory and every sound could be clearly heard! Eventually, I was moved to a hospital ship and was given my own cabin and looked after by a Red Cross nurse who turned out to have a brother in the Glosters and travelled in great comfort on the short voyage to Chittagong, where I was transferred to a hospital train bound for Decca, capital of Assam and eventually landed up in a big women’s ward in a temporary Red Cross hospital in the grounds of Dacca University. There I spent a month in bed receiving the current treatment for amoebic dysentery, which included “retention” enemas (retention that is far as long as one could manage!) and various kinds of pills. Not knowing anyone in Dacca I of course received no visitors but was lucky in having a very congenial neighbour in the bed next to me, who, poor soul, was suffering from the much worse disease of hepatitis and was still there when I left.
It was while I was there that we heard the news of the Nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on the 14th August that the Japanese had surrendered. That night, we were kept awake all hours by the celebrations going on in a men’s ward very near us and I can remember an agitated ward sister telling us that she was anxious about a seriously ill patient in the ward but could not persuade the others to be quiet. One could not blame them, when one considered all they must have been through.
At the end of a month I was pronounced cured and feeling very frail, set off on the 24 hour train journey to Shillong. This meant spending several hours sitting or lying on my bedding roll on the station platform waiting for the night train and trying to sleep, but kept awake by Indian families also waiting all round me, who never stopped chattering except when I sat up and said “chaprao” (Hindustani for “be quiet”) very loudly, then there was silence for about ten minutes!
It was wonderful to see Clevelands again after so many months and to meet Prue again and her son Peter, who was christened while I was there, his Godfather “Elephant Bill” being also present. But I still felt far from well and eventually entered a private nursing home and was treated by a Parsee woman doctor who diagnosed lack of vitamins and gave me strong vitamin injections which soon got me right again and which was a new treatment in those days.
After a few weeks leave I reported back to Rangoon where I found great changes. 33 Corps, on completing its task of destroying the Japanese Army up north, had been disbanded to form a basis of a new 12th Army commanded by Monty Stopford with its H.Q. in Rangoon. Though the war was over in Burma, there was still much work to be done amongst the troops longing to go home, but still needed to help rehabilitate the docks and transport services, organise Jap. P.O.W. camps etc. Most important too were the reception centres for the thousands of British P.O.W.’s being flown to Burma on their way home. Many Wasbies had left to re-join their husbands who had been serving in the Army or had been P.O.W.’s To replace them Nin had sent a Wasbie Liaison Officer to Australia to recruit new members from amongst the British women who had been evacuated there from the Far East early in the war.
After my return I witnessed another unique and very moving ceremony. The surrender of their swords by the Commander of the Japanese Army in Burma and his principal staff officers to General Stopford and his staff. I must confess that, in spite of all one knew about their treatment of British P.O.W.S’s and also the fact that Victor had been killed by a Jap. I could not repress an involuntary pang of sympathy for them on this supremely humiliating occasion. In November 1945 I was posted to Nasik, near Bombay, as O.C. of four Wasbie teams attached to BRINDIV (British & Indian Divisions) who were soon to sail to Japan as an Occupying Force. I was looking forward to the voyage and (with rather mixed feelings, having been there in 1937 with Victor) seeing Japan again, but after Christmas I received a telegram from Nin ordering me to hand over to another Wasbie who had just returned from home leave and for personal reasons had asked to be posted away from Burma. So back I went to Rangoon in February, rather disappointed, but one had to accept these things in the Army!
A few weeks later, after a sea voyage to Singapore, I was on my way by air to Sumatra on the 3rd March 1946, to relieve the Area Commander in charge of Wasbie teams attached to 26th Division, which had taken over the Island after the Japanese surrendered. Here life was a strange mixture of peace and war. We lived in a luxuriously furnished house, which before the war had been occupied by a high ranking Dutch official. Yet we were not allowed to go anywhere except to our canteens and then only in a jeep with an Indian driver and a British Tommy in the back seat armed with a rifle. This was because there were still pockets of Japs. in the countryside and much unrest amongst the Indonesians with fighting between them and local guerrillas.
Although the Wasbies went to Sumatra to look after British soldiers, we were also asked to start a static canteen for Indian troops that were there in large numbers. This was a new venture fraught with difficulties involving the provision of umpteen different kinds of food and trying to converse in Hindustani, Urdu, Tamil and Malay. This led to misunderstandings such as when an Indian trying to air his English, complained that the cakes were stale, “quite fresh,” said the Wasbie, “baked this morning,” “no, no,” said the Indian, “not made this morning, was made tomorrow!” The various cooks, Hindu, Madrasi etc. were unreliable, especially after festival days, when we once found the fat cook sitting under a tap, quite naked, singing to himself.
I had only been there 7 weeks when the murder of a British girl on the Red Cross staff at Padang, on the other side of the Island, resulted in the evacuation of all British women and on the 22nd April we were sent to Singapore. The others went on to Java, but I was ordered to return to Rangoon and Monty Stopford, who, by this time had handed over 12th Army to General Briggs, and was now Commander, South-East Asia in Singapore, offered me a seat on his private aircraft which was flying to Rangoon. I had previously casually mentioned I had never been to Bangkok and when on the flight, we ran into a bad storm and were forced to change course and spend a night at Bangkok, I wondered if Monty would suspect me of having bribed the Pilot! There was no time to catch more than a glimpse of the wonderful temples.
The end of the Wasbies was now in sight as more and more troops were being sent home and finally in May 1946, we were disbanded, to the accompaniment of expressions of appreciation and regret from Mountbatten downwards. It is sad, but I suppose inevitable in such as small Service, that, like 14h Army and also Burma itself, we should soon be forgotten (except by the troops we served) our only record being a small book called “The Wasbies,” The Story of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma)” written by K. Vellacott Jones, a Wasbie who had been a journalist and published by War Facts Press. Very few copies were printed, one of which I have. In the final paragraph of General Slim’s foreword he says:-
“They carried their duties throughout the re-conquest of Burma right up to forward formations. Their contribution, not only to the material welfare but to the morale of the Army was a very real one. The men of the Fourteen Army were proud to see them wearing their Army Sign and they will long remember them for their unselfish cheerfulness, their tireless service and for the breath of home they brought with them”I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that those words were a sufficient reward for four years of hard, demanding but always exciting and exhilarating work. That is, except in one very important aspect. Our Commandant, Nin Taylor, without whom the Wasbie Mobile Canteen Service would never have started and whose determination, courage and leadership inspired us all, did not, in our opinion, receive adequate recognition. In view of the high praise of the Wasbies expressed by General Slim, as quoted above, one would have expected Nin, who was the inspiration behind all our efforts, would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier and to have received a C.B.E. instead of ending up as a Colonel with an O.B.E. Though she never said so, I am sure she was disappointed. One can only hope that the sentiments expressed in our farewell address to her, may have been some consolation:-
“ Each individual has been proud to serve under your command, your courageous and gallant leadership. Perhaps only those who worked closely with you realise what a terrific strain – physically and mentally – was yours. At all times you gave of your very best, unquestioningly and without any thought of self....
During the campaign, Ma’am, it was your courage and determination which enabled the canteen to go forward where they were most needed and made the name of Wasbie a magic one with 14th Army troops. The innumerable and almost insurmountable difficulties which you faced and conquered inspired us to give you of our best service...
We go forward to the future enriched by our experiences in the W.A.S. (B) and our friendship with you, keeping in our hearts the wonderful esprit de corps which you instilled into us and with which, as our well-loved Commandant, you set such a brilliant example. For all you have done for us, individually and collectively, we thank you, Ma’am. God bless you always.”
Nin and a few Wasbies stayed on for a month or two to deal with all the details connected with the winding up of the Service, but I sailed for home on the 19th May in the troopship “Rene de Pacifico.“ As we moved slowly down the river to the Gulf of Martaban, I stood in the stern and watched the golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda grow smaller and smaller with a great feeling of sadness. Some of the happiest years of my life had been spent in Burma, as well as some of the most exciting and Victor had died there. It was a beautiful country and I loved it and imagined I would never see it again. How wrong I was! Now once more, I had to face a new life and had no idea what form it would take.
Four years later, on 14th May 1950, I had the honour of representing the Wasbies at a Service in Westminster Abbey commemorating the British men and women who had lost their lives in the Burma Campaign and attended by a large congregation of relatives and friends and headed by Lord and Lady Mountbatten. I was given a seat in the Choir Stalls next to Lady Slim and immediately opposite the Burmese Premier Thakin Nu and his wife and Aung San’s widow, all wearing Burmese dress. The Guard of Honour outside the Great West Door was formed by men of the Gloucestershire Regiment.
In June 1953 I joined several other Wasbies allotted seats by the War Office in a stand in Hyde Park to view the Procession from Westminster Abbey of the Queen and Prince Phillip after her Coronation. The fact that we had sat from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in pouring rain did not detract from the excitement and pageantry of the occasion heightened by the news that a British team had reached the top of Mount Everest. The “Rene,” which was a huge ship was crammed with officers and other ranks of various Services, both men and women. Janet Lindop was the only other Wasbie on board and she and I were in a small cabin originally two-berth but converted into a four-berth. I don’t remember who the other occupants were, but I know it was a terrible squash. Her husband Jim, was also on board, and also Freddie Wemyss, ex Burma Police and we spent most evenings playing bridge together.
At Colombo, we took on about six W.R.N. Officers and about 100 W.R.N. Ratings. We lent over the rail and watched them struggling up a narrow gangway carrying their kit-bags to the accompaniment of whistles and cat-calls from the troops on deck. It was the first time I had met any “Wrens” and I made friends with one of the Officers and we sat on deck together most mornings. She was a very friendly person, but the others were a little “superior” and I remembered the story we had heard when they first arrived in Delhi with Lord Mountbatten, that the wall surrounding their quarters was several feet higher than that surrounding the W.A.C. (I) (Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India.) and that their hair was permed and their stockings silk, but that after the monsoon their permed hair was straight and their stockings had rotted! There was also an amusing carton in a Delhi paper showing a line of W.A.C. (I) other ranks with nothing on above the waste looking bashfully down at their toes, while an inspecting male Army Officer said angrily to the W.A.C. (I) Sergt. “I said KIT inspection!” I expect there were some similar stories about the Wasbies.
There were also about 100 VAD’s who, though probably from the same social class as the Wren ratings down below, were travelling First Class and lay about half naked on the top deck all day surrounded by young Army Officers, so thick on the ground it was almost impossible not to step on them.
Just as in June 1936 when Victor and I went home on leave the India Ocean was rough and hot and the Red Sea even hotter, while the food, though plentiful, was most unsuitable – tripe and onions and suet pudding and treacle is an example! In spite of the heat every evening over the loud speaker, it was announced that there would be a dance for the other ranks, the words “All Wren rating Will attend” were added. Janet and I felt so sorry for them that we went to the O.C. Troops and protested, the result being that the words “It is hoped that” were added.
We berthed at Liverpool on a cloudy day, June 10th and shivered in a wind which seemed very cold after the tropics. The Lindops were going to Scotland so I travelled to London with Freddy Wemyss and shared a taxi with him to a hotel in Dorset Square, which he recommended. We discovered that the Victory Parade had been held the day before and the streets were gay with flags.
I got Pauline on the phone and she came to see me the next day. It was more than seven years since Victor and I had seen her off from Rangoon in March 1939, so of course she had changed a lot, as I am sure I had too. For the last four years she had been training as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital and at the moment was on night duty and looked very pale and tired. In fact she had had a breakdown half-way through her training so was doing an extra year. We kept in touch by letter and her mother had also written to me at intervals giving me news of her and it did not take long to pick up the threads. She had had a tough time all through the war and a narrow escape when a bomb fell on the flat she was sharing with a friend, at the time she was luckily on night duty.
Having no idea what I was going to do for a living, I put off coming to a decision for as long as possible and spent the next few months travelling about and staying with long-suffering friends, interspersed with short visits to Worthing. My father had aged very much and as always we found it difficult to communicate but he seemed happy with Tots (my stepmother.)
I also of course went to see Victor’s mother and sister and her husband, now living in Ewell in Surrey. His mother seemed a sad shadow of the cheerful person I had net in 1937 when Victor and I stayed with her and his father in Tunis and on the Alpes Maritime and found it very difficult to settle down in England after living in Tunis for so long.
Amongst those I visited were of course the Bagots. Charles had retired and bought a small farm on the banks of the river Wye. Veronica, now 13, had grown up a lot and I met their son Christopher who had been at school at home all through the war. It was lovely to see them again and to hear all the latest news about the Regiment.
But before starting on these rounds, I had to fit myself out with some civilian clothes. As I had been given 150 coupons (compared with the approximately 25 a year allotted to civilians at home) and had saved about £15,00 while in the Wasbies, where we got free board and lodgings, I looked forward to being able to buy some really nice clothes for once, but was disappointed as there was practically nothing good in the shops and I just had to buy what I could find. It was some time before I got used to the food rationing to which we had not been subjected out East and I was not surprised that most people still looked rather pale and run down.
It was sometime in September that the invisible hand which always seems to guide me when in doubt as to my next step in life, made itself felt. I went down to Uley in Gloucestershire to stay with Hylda and George Alexander, now retired from Bombay, where they had been great friends of ours.
Before I left to go to London, I mentioned that I had booked a room in the Rembrandt Hotel in Brompton Road for a week, so enabling me to see Pauline and various friends, whereupon they told me that General Briggs was staying there. I had met “Briggo” as he was known in the Army. After he took over as G.O.C. 12th Army from Monty Stopford in Rangoon about six months ago, having previously commanded 5th Division in the Middle East and Burma with great distinction. During his service out East, his wife Mona lived in Bombay and she and Briggo had become great friends of George and Hylda. That night at dinner he was sitting by himself, saw and remembered me and asked me to join him for coffee. In the course of conversation he asked me what my plans were and when I said I hadn’t any, to my astonishment he said “what about coming back to Rangoon as my P.A. (personal assistant?) To which I replied without the slightest hesitation “you won’t see for dust!” At that time it was thought that the final hand-over to the Burmese would not take place till 1949, which meant I would be settled for another two years. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement!
It turned out that Mona was in a nursing home recovering from an operation and needed some time to convalesce, so Briggo would be shortly returning to Rangoon by air by himself and arranged that I should travel out by sea with her early in February. It really was a most amazing piece of luck that I should meet him just before he left.
Not long after this, on the 23rd October, an event took place of great importance to the Wasbies – our first Re-Union since our disbandment. We met in a Women’s Club in London and what a heart warming occasion it was! Nin was of course the guest of honour and we presented her with a silver salver, cream jug and sugar basin and some coffee cups as a token of our esteem and affection. Of course only a comparatively small number of us could come, as the rest were scattered in various parts of the world but all except about 50 of us who served through the whole campaign, turned up. Looking at some photos of us I am amazed at how smart, elegant and young we all were, but that was 30 years ago! It was a good thing that neither we nor Nin could know that she was to die suddenly only a few years later after an operation.
Winter was now beginning and what a winter it was, setting a record not to be challenged till 1962/63 and to say that I was frozen after ten years in the tropics is no exaggeration. I went down to Worthing for Christmas and while waiting for a train on a Salisbury platform after staying with friends nearby I could feel the cold beginning to grip me from the feet upwards. That night I woke up with a severe shivering attack reminiscent of my attacks of malaria and crept downstairs to look for some brandy, but no luck. Mercifully it passed off and I was no worse next day.
A few weeks later, on the 19th February, Pauline was at Euston to see me off and I travelled up to Liverpool with Charles Blakeney, who was returning to Burma alone for a final two years with the Railways. He and his wife Eve had been great friends of ours in Rangoon. I remember well looking out at the bleak snow-covered countryside with no regrets at all at leaving it. I had spent the last few days at the Rembrandt in great discomfort with practically no hot water not even for hot water bottles and certainly not for baths and very little lighting due to a strike and was thankful that I would soon be out of it all. So widespread was the cold air that we did not feel really warm until we got into the Indian Ocean. Even the Red Sea was cool.
In contrast to the voyage home, we travelled in a small passenger boat. Once again I played bridge all the way, this time with Charles and two other friends of pre-war days. Mona Briggs had the next cabin to me and was very frail but thrilled to be going out to join her husband. Four weeks later, on the 17th March 1947, I found myself once again, as in a strange dream, looking at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda as we sailed into Rangoon harbour, eight and a half years after I first saw it standing on the deck of the troopship “Dunera” with Victor and Pauline beside me, when the Glosters arrived in Rangoon. Briggo came out to meet Mona in a small motor-launch and took her off, already stronger for the warmth and rest on board. His young A.D.C. Captain Grookes, met me when we docked and took me back to his bungalow in the grounds of the G.O.C.’s house, where I stayed with him and his wife for the first few weeks. The next day I had the intense pleasure of lunching with Peggy and Jerry Jupp. An event which, when we parted in Calcutta in 1942, I would not have believed possible. While at home I had heard that they were back in Rangoon, now the proud parents of two children, and had written to tell them I was coming out again. Soon afterwards, Peggy and the children left for home, but Jerry stayed on and we played bridge together sometimes.
Briggo wasted no time and I started my work as his P.A. four days later. It was not very arduous – in fact after the stresses and strains of life as a Wasbie the job was extremely easy, but it was most interesting in the context of the situation generally in Burma. Until then, in spite of having lived eight years in the country I was extremely ignorant on the subject if its political position, having been wholly concerned, first with the Glosters part in the struggle to prevent the Japanese from over-running it and later with the victorious re-capture of it by 14th Army. Now, though still connected with the Army as the G.O.C.’s P.A. I learnt more about the true situation politically.
The attitude of the Burmese (apart from the Kachins, Karens and Nagas in the north, who were loyal to the British) to the war against the Japs. had been that they considered their country was already occupied by a foreign power, so why should they support it. The British Government had vaguely declared its intention of granting full self-government eventually, but no date had been fixed. In 1941 the Premier, U Saw, was arrested in Lisbon, returning from a visit to London, for collaborating with the Japanese, but his successor, Sir Paw Tun, a distinguished member of the administration, ex school-master and lawyer, who accompanied the Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith and the Burmese Government to India in 1942, supported the Allied cause, and trusted the British to keep their promise of eventual freedom.After the Japs. had occupied the country the ordinary Burmese (many of whom had betrayed the retreating British Army troops to the Japs.) realised that they had merely exchanged one foreign ruler for another and a resistance movement was formed called the Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League, a prominent member of which was a remarkable young man called Aung San, who was later to take a leading part in negotiations with the British Government and achieve the liberation of his country. Born in 1916 he was only 28 when he emerged as a leader. In his book “First and Last in Burma” Maurice Collis describes him as intense, silent, authoritative and quick, with a magical personality – good-looking with an almost boyish air, his eyes bright and expectant, though with a hint of sadness. During the occupation he had an Army called the Burma Defence Army, which had been armed by the Japs. but after their defeat it was re-named the Burma National Army and he was given the rank of Major-General. So strong was his personality and so convincing his arguments that he persuaded Slim, Mountbatten and Dorman-Smith of his sincerity and finally won over Atlee and the British Government when he visited London in January 1947 and signed an agreement by which a new Council would be formed in Burma to act as an Interim Government of which he would be the Leader and to make the necessary arrangements for Burma to become Independent as soon as possible.
This had happened between the date in October 1946 when Briggo had offered me the job as P.A. and my arriving in Rangoon in March 1947 and it now looked as though it was unlikely that the job would last as long as he had led me to expect. In fact, the hand-over took place in January 1948, of which more anon.
Briggo was of course not involved in all these negotiations but as G.O.C. Burma Command he was responsible amongst other things for law and order. This became a very vital matter when a tragic event took place on the 19th July. The newly-formed Council was sitting in a room at the Secretariat with Aung San in the Chair, when at about 10.30 a.m. a party of Burmese armed with automatic guns, rushed through the courtyard and burst into the Council Chamber. Their approach was so swift, sudden and unexpected, that they were not challenged by the police. Without any parley, they opened fire on the Councillors at point blank range and in a few seconds Aung San and four of his colleagues lay dead, two others badly wounded, died later in hospital. The assassins escaped, but were follows and arrested at the house of U Saw, the traitor in 1941, who had been released from detention at the end of the war and returned to Burma, but had not been given a place on the Council and was a political enemy of Aung San. He too was arrested, tried by a Burmese High Court Judge, found guilty of murder and hanged.
So, having achieved his aim of liberating his country, Aung San died tragically at the age of 30. In his book Maurice Collis tells how Aung San, when visiting the Governor early in 1946, talked of his loneliness, saying “how long do national heroes last? Not long in this country, they have too many enemies. Three years is the most they can hope to survive. I do not give myself more than another eighteen months of life.” His forecast was almost exactly right. Maurice Collis also describes how, at a reception, he gave at the Dorchester during his visit to London in January, Aung San, a small figure in Major-General’s uniform, was eyed with curiosity by the foreign diplomats, who found it an unusual experience to meet an Asiatic who had just wrested his country from the grip of an old colonial power. They called him Your Excellency and it was noteworthy how he outshone the other Burmese present. His habitual reserve had thawed and he was genial and gay. It was as if he was conscious for the first time, that he was not only a national hero but a celebrity. How different the future of Burma would have been if he had lived one can only guess.The news of the assassination reached Army Headquarters within a few minutes. It was a Saturday and I was seated under a hair-dryer in a hairdressers shop in the town when someone told me the news. I rushed back to H.Q. at once to find Briggo on the telephone arranging all the precautions necessary to deal with any trouble that might arise, such as riots. A curfew was at once imposed. The next day the H.Q. of a British Brigade flew in from Singapore to make arrangements in case any troops should be needed, as there were no British ones now in the country. To my surprise, the Brigadier was Neville Grazebrook of the Glosters brother of Michael who had been C.O. of the regiment when Victor and I joined it in Wellington in 1937 and during our first year in Rangoon. I had never met Neville and he was very surprised when I introduced myself as he waited to see Briggo. “What on earth are you doing here?” I can remember him saying.
Luckily everyone remained fairly calm, probably being rather stunned and there was no need to call for reinforcements. Thakin Nu, an able colleague of Aung San was appointed Leader and continued the task of drafting a new Constitution. One immediate complication for the Burmese officials was that the custom of the country was to embalm the bodies of the dead and in this case of distinguished persons for them to lie in state to be viewed by the populace. This proved problem, as it was apparently difficult to produce enough of the necessary ingredients to embalm successfully as many as six bodies at the same time. Briggo as did other important people in Rangoon, went to the hall where they lay and laid wreaths by the bodies and was almost asphyxiated by the terrible stench!
One great problem in Burma was the condition in which the country had been left after the war, thousands of acres gone out of cultivation, banditry rife and transport so lacking that supplies could not be moved. British firms connected with the timber trade, rice mills and mines, began to return but were not encouraged by the Burmese to stay permanently.
To return to my own doings:- About two months after I arrived, I moved out of the Crookes’ bungalow to a Hostel for European women somewhere bear the Victoria Lakes and bought myself a small car. By this time I had made contact with various friends, either from pre-war days or whom I had met while in Rangoon in 1945/46 and had quite a full social life. The Pegu Club, which was very exclusive before the war and which was alleged to have been used as a brothel by the Japs. had opened its doors to British residents whatever their rank or occupation and one could dance there. There was also a Club in Mingaladon for Army Officers. Looking back, the strange thing is that I seemed not to be upset by the fact that the G.O.C.’s office was in Mingaladon and that I lunched every day in the Officers’ Mess there. They were not in the same part of the cantonment as the 28th had been and nowhere near our Officers’ quarters and I think some part of me must have been unconsciously determined to shut out the past because it was so painful. I was once invited t a party by an Army couple, but discovered in the nick of time, that they lived in our last house. That would have been more than I could have borne.
When in Rangoon in the Wasbies in 1945/46 I was fully occupied with my job but now I had more leisure time and again thinking back, I suppose after a marriage which lasted only six years and which ended so abruptly, I just accepted the opportunity to drown my memories in the sort of social life I had always enjoyed when it came my way. That is the only explanation I can offer of my apparent heartlessness.
The Briggs were very kind in asking me to drinks, lunch etc. sometimes, especially when anyone came to stay whom I knew but they did not entertain a great deal as Mona was still not very strong. One person I was specially glad to meet again was Donald Moxon, Archdeacon of Rangoon, who had been Chaplain to the 28th from 1938 to 1942 and a great friend of Victor’s. He told me that when he heard that Victor had been killed he tried to get back to Shwedaung to bury him but of course it was impossible. He was now at the Cathedral and I sometimes went to services there.
On the 1st October, I had a shock when a telegram came from my stepmother telling me that my father had died very suddenly of a heart attack. Though we had never managed to get close to each other, it was a break with the past, but I was glad that he had not suffered a long illness and that his last years had been happy.
A fortnight later Thakin Nu, now known as U Nu (U being the Burmese equivalent for Mr) went to London and on the 17th of October, a treaty was signed between Britain and Burma, the first clause of which was “The Government of the United Kingdom Recognised the Republic of the Union of Burma as a fully Independent State” and it was agreed that the transfer should be made in the New Year. The date finally chosen was the 4th January 1948 and the time 4.30 a.m. which was considered auspicious by the astrologers.
The next few months were pretty hectic, both in the office and socially. There were numerous parties including cocktails at Government House, followed a few weeks later by a dance; cocktails with the R.A.F. H.Q. Burma Command, the Queen Alexandra’s Nurses etc. For the first time in my life I learnt to dance Scottish reels – not an ideal exercise in such a hot climate, but grand fun – with some of the numerous Scots always to be found in the Far East in those days. On the 21st December, Burma Command gave a farewell dinner for the Briggs at the Club in Mingaladon (the menu for which I still have with both their signatures.)
On Christmas Day I had dinner with Donald and some of the Cathedral staff, my most vivid memory of this being that one of the small lizards which used to frequent one’s rooms out East, fell off the ceiling plumb in the middle of my plate, just as I was starting on a large helping of turkey etc. that Donald had given me – so large that there was none left for a second helping!
On January 8th Sir Hubert Rance (who had succeeded Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith as Governor when the latter retired through ill-health in July 1946) and Lady Rance gave a large farewell cocktail party attended by all the important people, British and Burmese, connected with the out-going and in-coming Government, Services etc. It was a very cheerful occasion but also with an undercurrent feeling of sadness that Aung San was not there and in the case of many of the British genuine regrets at leaving Burma. Any ill-feeling between them and the Burmese seemed to have vanished with the coming of independence.
Two days later the Governor and Lady Rance left for home and had a great send-off, followed on the 16th January by the Briggs who were going to Cyprus where they intended to settle. So ended the rule of the British in Burma, in the hundred and twenty third year after they had annexed her maritime provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim and in the sixty third year after taking Mandalay, her capital, and banishing Thibaw, her King.
It had been agreed with the Burmese Government that the British should keep military control for a few months and I was asked if I would like to act as P.A. to the new G.O.C. General Bourne. I agreed to do so for a few weeks while he settled in but did not feel I wanted to stay on under the new regime and eventually left Rangoon on the 11th February in a small troopship containing the last remaining members of the British Services, Civil and Military (except for a small nucleus) in Burma. So, once again, I watched the Shwe Dagon Pagoda grow smaller and smaller, knowing that this really was the last time I should see it and with the same feeling of sadness. This final year had been a strange, unreal experience in the context of my previous life in Burma, where I had known such happiness and sorrow and now once again I did not know what the future held for me.
Joan M. Morton