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Extract from “The Statesman,” May 24th 1942
THE LAST DAYS IN RANGOON
by our Special Correspondent lately in Burma
Land of happy laughter, of colour and music, Burma was ill-prepared mentally and materially for the clash of arms. To me personally the most heart-rending episode of the war was the ruthless bombing of Mandalay by the Japanese, Kipling’s Mandalay, which had long stood for the Burma of a bygone age, practically ceased to exist on Good Friday. Mandalay in ruins was awe-inspiring, but equally so were the sights I witnessed in Rangoon during the closing days of February and that fateful first week in March.
The whole of Tenasserim was by then in Japanese hands. British, Indian, Anglo-Indian and loyal Burmese troops, fighting courageous but unavailing rearguard actions, dive bombed and shelled mercilessly, has been forced back in succession across the Salween river, the Bilin and the Sittang and Nippon’s war machine was moving ruthlessly towards the holy city of Pegu, about 45 miles from Rangoon and on the railway line to Mandalay.
In Rangoon itself there was a growing air of expectancy – an ominous expectancy. Singapore had fallen in the middle of February and a Japanese attempt to land on the coast near Burma’s great port was ever present. In spite of the trouncing they had already received at the hands of the R.A.F. and the A.V.G., Jap air raiders were over Mingaladon practically every night and often in the day. On a night not easily forgotten the sirens wailed four times in six hours, on one occasion the “all clear” working into the alarm as Rangoon’s tired citizens were emerging from their shelters.
The paddy fields around Mingaladon were dotted with the wrecks of Japanese bombers and fighters but still they came, trying desperately to wrest mastery in the air from the Allies. Many were the deeds of heroism accomplished high up in the sky and British Hurricanes and American Tomahawkes strove gallantly to prevent the raiders from blitzing Rangoon.
Often when the sky was cloudless anxious watchers on the ground could see trails of white smoke, marking the course of many a desperate dogfight. At night, when the moon sailed the heavens, the Japs were sure to come over. The nocturnal stillness would first be shattered by the eerie wail of the siren and then would be heard the dull thus of bombs, dropping presumably near Mingaladon and the sharp rat-tat-tat of Rangoon’s Ack-Ack guns and the welcome drone of our fighters as they chased the enemy across the sky.
Standing at the entrance of my shelter one night I saw a sudden burst of light in the northern sky, seconds later burning pieces of metal were falling drunkenly to the ground – a Jap raider had had the worst of an encounter with a Hurricane.
Rangoon in those days was very different from the city I had known it to be a year before. It bore the scars of the first indiscriminate bombing attacks on December 23rd and 25th and the charred remains of buildings near the docks, the bullet-pitted walls of a church, the shattered glass panes in the windows of shops and bomb craters in residential areas told their own story, but on the whole the material damage was not great.
The effect of these two raids on the morale of a people long accustomed to peace was however obvious. Casualties in the first raid had been very heavy, especially among Indians and Rangoon in those days was being run almost entirely on Indian labour. I am told that after the 23rd’s raid 40,000 Indians left the city on foot and headed for Prome, 100 miles away, intending to cross over to India by way of Taungup Pass. Un-hygienic conditions and lack of proper food and water resulted in out breaks of cholera and plague. Eventually rest camps were established in the Prome and Tharrawaddy districts. Some of the evacuees entered these camps but a fair percentage of the 40,000 were persuaded to return to Rangoon and continue their work there. Mr R.H. Hutchings, the Government of India’s Agent in Burma was ably supported by leaders of Rangoon’s Indian community in his efforts to bring the men back to the blitzed city.
Even in the closing weeks of January it was obvious that Rangoon’s sands were running out. The city reminded me of a mechanical toy working itself out to a standstill. In the day there was a semblance of normality except during the raids when work ceased almost completely, but as the evening shadows fell an eerie stillness descended upon the blacked out city and the streets became deserted. The number of shops open in the day became progressively fewer as people’s thoughts turned more and more towards evacuation.
Government offices often suffered from lack of staff and while workers became fewer the volume of work increased. Delays in telegraph communication with the rest of the world was inevitable. To those workers who remained at their posts during those trying days all praise is due. Cinemas and other places of amusement were closed, trains ran but not according to scheduled timings, taxi fares soared in Rangoon as the transport problem became more and more acute, food was on sale in the public markets but he who had anything like an adequate staff of servants was the envy of the neighbourhood.
Things continued in this fashion until February 18 or 18th when the banks found it impossible to function any longer with depleted staffs and announced their intention to close their Rangoon offices and reopen in Mandalay.
A few hours later the city’s two English newspapers ceased publication. No arrangements had been made for transfer of the presses to Upper Burma and people had to do without what in those days was an absolute necessity. It is true that Rangoon Radio functioned almost until the last, but it was not everybody who owned a wireless set, many living on rumours and rumours of a pernicious kind.
Events were fast moving towards a climax. On February 20th an order appeared on the walls of Rangoon for the civil evacuation of the city within 48 hours. On those same walls earlier had been pasted A.R.P. notices called upon citizens to “stay put” and not to let Rangoon burn!
The city emptied fast. Every type of motor vehicle was requisitioned for the journey to Upper Burma, not by the usual route via Pegu for the Japs were somewhere near that town but along the lengthier and more arduous Prome road route. Thousands of Indian labourers again set out on foot for Prome carrying their humble belongings in bundles on their heads, the sun beating down pitilessly upon them by day and at the mercy of dacoits in the Burmese jungle at night.
The rest of Rangoon’s population steamed up to Mandalay and other places in Upper Burma in cars, motor lorries and river launches. They took with them the bare necessities of life. Many left behind fully furnished houses and well-appointed villas, in many cases representing a man’s life-savings, to the tender mercies of looters. On the way up cars which could not stand the strain were abandoned by the roadside and their occupants hitch-hiked the rest of the way.
The evacuation left Rangoon practically deserted, but not wholly so for besides the military essential workers remained at their posts and enabled the public services to function.
During those abnormal days the order went forth throwing open the jails and the mental homes. Fires raged in the city every night and no attempt was made to put them out because the fire engines had been sent to Mandalay. Walking along Dalhousie street one morning I was shocked to behold the smouldering ruins of a market in which Indian Moslems traded in expensive silks. It had been burnt down the previous night. From a heap of rubble and ashes I picked up a book curiously enough untouched by the flames. Its title was “Right Off The Map.” To me Rangoon seemed to be going right off the map.
The feeling of emptiness in the streets became almost tangible and as heightened rather than diminished when a military lorry lumbered past or a solitary mongrel slunk across a once bury thoroughfare. Shots rang out now and again indicating that looters were being summarily dealt with. Lone sentinel of the moribund city, the golden spire of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda still pointed majestically to the sky.
A few most days and then came the news that advancing Japanese forces thrusting down the Pegu road had reached its junction with the Prome road. The army decided it was time to go. It was in danger of being isolated and Rangoon could not be defended.
Came the word “blow.” The demolitions began. All military and other vital installations such as the railway station, the telegraph office, the wireless station, Rangoon’s docks, the power-house and the vast oil refinery at Syriam were destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy.
The army meanwhile fought its way out along the Prome road on March 7th and 8th defeating the enemy’s attempt to annihilate it.
Thus ended the story of Rangoon. The mechanical toy had finally run itself out and had come to a stop.