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The History Of The
Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma)
Ninian Taylor, O.B.E.
Letter dated 2nd April 1946 from
General Sir William J. Slim
"I first met the Woman's Auxiliary Service (Burma) during the testing time of the 1942 Retreat from Burma.
Then they not only performed essential services for the Army, but played a great part in helping the many thousands of
unfortunate refugees - British, Burmese and Indian - who were being driven from their homes in circumstances of terrible hardship.
In this and in the many air raids on defenceless Burmese towns they showed the highest standard of devotion and courage.
Forward to the W.A.S.(B.) History dated 7th May 1946 from
Rear Admiral, The Viscount Mountbatten of Burma
I am glad to take this opportunity of expressing my admiration for the splendid work done by the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) since its formation in January 1942. The "Wasbies" who have the distinction of being the only women's service in Burma played an important part in the Burma campaign. They shared the hardships and difficulties of the troops all the way from Rangoon to Maymyo and later to Shwebo and were evacuated from Myitkyina on the last plane to leave Burma on 5th may 1942.
Teams of "Wasbies" worked in various parts of Assam and Arakan. They were evacuated from Imphal during the siege but they returned four months later and moved right down through Burma with the 14th Army - earning their place in the history of that famous Army.
Although they were living and working in the most uncomfortable conditions, they always had the welfare of the troops at heart and they were able to do much to alleviate the hardships of the campaign.
The "Wasbies" are continuing their good work with teams in the Andaman Islands, Java, Sumatra and Japan and on behalf of the forces in South East Asia Command I wish to express our thanks and appreciation for what they have done for us in the past and to wish them every success in the future.
Letter dated 28th January 1946 from
Lt. Genl. Sir Montague G.N. Stopford
General Officer Commanding-in-Chief
H.Q. Burma Command, S.E.A.C.
To: H.Q., A.L.F.S.E.A.
On vacating command in Burma, I should like to place on record my appreciation of the magnificent work done by the W.A.S.(B.) during the Burma Campaign and since it ended. I have seen the teams of this organisation working through the battle from Jorhat through Kohima, the Kabaw Valley, Mandalay and on to Rangoon. They have toiled with their Mobile Canteens through mud, dust, heat and rain, sharing the hardships of the troops, but they have always delivered the goods and their services have been enormously appreciated by British, Indian and African soldiers alike.
When the war ended, W.A.S.(B.) was the first to open static canteens in Burma, which contributed very materially to the morale and welfare of all three services. I understand that the organisation is shortly to be disbanded and I should therefore be grateful if the contents of this letter could be communicated to its Commandant.
Formation of the W.A.S.(B.) Canteens
The story of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) is the record of a small group of women who had as their zone of operations the whole length of Burma and whose forward area units were seldom much than a few miles from the actual battlefields of the long and difficult campaigns in that country.
Formed on January 16th 1942 to work mainly on cipher duties with the British armed forces in Burma, the W.A.S.(B.) organisation had been in existence only a few short weeks when the Japanese poured into Burma from the south. Concentrated at Rangoon with the headquarters of the various services W.A.S.(B.) personnel got their baptism of fire when Japanese bombers attached the city.
Then about 350 strong, the main group of the W.A.S.(B.) force was evacuated by sea to India with the unit’s first Commandant, Mrs C. Dean. Sixty-five however, continued their work with Army Headquarters and Mrs N. Taylor then assumed command of the W.A.S.(B.)
Evacuation was not easy for parts of the city were already on fire when the order to move was given. The Burmese bus drivers fled when bombs fell, so the girls drove themselves to the jetties, only to find the dock gates locked when they arrived. And when they finally did manage to get aboard a ship, they immediately set to work caring for casualties, helping to stow luggage and taking over all the jobs normally carried out by stewards. The docks were already on fire and Rangoon, where many of the women had had to leave their husbands and friends, was being heavily attacked by Japanese bombers.
Meanwhile the remaining W.A.S.(B.) personnel who were moving north with the retreating British forces had their share of adventurers. They left Rangoon by train and “standing room only” was the rule for all who could crowd into the carriages. Japanese bombers were already striking at the railway and the line of wreckage was steadily moving north. The Wasbies resumed their work with Army Headquarters at Maymyo, but in April 1942 a further withdrawal was necessary and another move was ordered to Shwebo. It was a nightmare journey. During the first night, as they pulled slowly out of Mandalay, a coupling in the centre of the train snapped while moving up a slope. The latter half of the carriages rolled backwards down the hill while the front section, with the engine suddenly relieved of half its load, shot forward. The stranded Wasbies were eventually recovered the next morning. All attempts at maintaining fixed railway schedules failed completely and every siding was jammed with refugees hoping to get their compartments linked to a passing train.
At Shwebo Mrs Taylor managed to find an empty house for the 32 girls in her unit, a building so dirty that, tired as they were, the girls had to scrub the floors before they would unroll their blankets and get a night’s sleep. The entire party shared this house for two weeks, working regular shifts on cipher duties at Army Headquarters and dodging the intermittent air attacks on the town. With casualties mounting rapidly among both troops and civilians the Wasbies spent all their spare time at the hospital, carrying out the dead, assisting in the operating theatre, dressing wounds, washing and other jobs.
The strategic position was deteriorating rapidly. Japanese patrols were attempting to cut the railway line to Myitkyina and it was decided that the Wasbies should again move north. Train travel proved to be even worse that the preceding stages from Rangoon. The average day’s run was about eight miles, the train could move only by day for no signals were operating and there was always a risk of collision on the single track line. Time and time again they were shunted off on sidings to wait for hours until the track was clear again. Shortly after leaving Shwebo the Japanese swooped on the town in a ma sari attack and later disaster was narrowly averted by discovery of a Fifth Columnist about to throw a Mills bomb at the train.
Every carriage as crowded far beyond its normal capacity, meals were cooked when the train was pushed on to a siding and a meal on that trip often meant a single can of beans shared amongst eight people. Sleep was impossible in the hot, dirty carriages even if there had been room to lie down. There was scarcely enough water for drinking purposes, none at all for washing and always the former was a meagre ration from the engine boiler.
The whole route was lined with refugees waiting to get transport to the north and the journey was an endless series of maddening delays. To add to their discomfort the Wasbies knew that only a short distance behind them was a heavily-loaded ammunition train, a top priority target for any chance Japanese bomber.
Fortunately, however, just as it seemed that the Wasbies unit would never reach Myitkyina, their train was met by a small diesel truck carrying a senior official of the Burma Railways, who immediately transferred the girls and finally got them through to Myitkyina. From there they were flown out to Assam and finally on to Simla in May 1942.
At Simla the W.A.S.(B.) organisation, in its original form was disbanded, many of the Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese girls volunteering for service with the W.A.C.(I.) and forming the first platoon of that unit.
Mrs Taylor, however, immediately set about the task of re-forming the unit as a canteen service for the troops of the Burma Command. First it was necessary to obtain authority for the establishment of the new service from the Army and as soon as this was granted the ground-work of the canteen unit was laid. It was to prove itself in the years to come a unique organisation. It put canteens staffed by British women within the sound of Japanese guns, it sent mobile units to both base and forward areas, set up canteen shops and tea counters at all the major staging points within the Burma sphere of operations and came to be eagerly accepted by Divisional commanders as a valuable morale factor all along the route from base camps to forward fighting zones. The W.A.S.(B.) canteens were far more than just a source of supplies and a tea and snack service to the troops, they took with them wherever they went, into the teak wood forests, along the great waterways, or to the dusty wreckage-strewn planes, the atmosphere of home and a concern for the welfare of the men that only women can give.
The W.A.S.(B.) unit opened its first canteen at Shillong in September 1942 where thousands of troops were concentrated. Some had come in from the bitter rearguard actions throughout Burma, others were moving up to hold the mountain frontier against the Japanese and the whole area teemed with activity.
Six of the original W.A.S.(B.) force comprised the nucleus of the canteen service. They were Mrs N. Taylor, Commandant: Mrs N. Scott, 2nd in Command: Mrs G. Tucker, Mrs J. Morton, Mrs D. Courtenay and Mrs P. Bankes. Later, Mrs L. St. John, who had helped to get the main group out of Rangoon by sea, rejoined the organisation as Assistant Commandant.
The first canteen was a mobile unit selling tea, sandwiches, cakes and stores to the troops in the camps around Shillong and to transport columns moving up and down the mountain road linking that centre with the railway at the Brahmaputra River Convoys moving out at dawn or coming in at dusk found the W.A.S.(B.) canteen at the gates of the one-way traffic road. The canteen staff developed a technique for finding out where they were most needed and getting there. Working hours had to fit into this programme, although often it meant leaving their headquarters before daylight and alter on, in the Chittagong and Dimapur area, working shifts right round the clock. Staging camps round Shillong received regular visits from the canteen and it was also on call at any time for units moving in or out of the area. For the Wasbie teams it involved jolting for hours over rough roads which twisted, climbed and dipped through mountainous country, a network of hair-pin bends and narrow bridges crowded with military traffic. Then came the business of serving tea and stores at the various camps, often with temperatures in the canteen well over the hundred mark and then back at headquarters a further spell of duty restocking for the next day’s run and the job of making up the accounts. Those in charge of the kitchen work had the task of supervising the cake and sandwich making, securing stores from Army bulk depots and keeping equipment up to date.
The troops who were served by the W.A.S.(B.) canteens may not have realised how much they owed to Canteen Services (India) who supplied all the stores without which the canteen could not have functioned.
New W.A.S.(B.) recruits had to be trained, the canteen itinerary planned to meet the most urgent need and swift decisions made on the thousand and one minor problems inevitable in the establishment of any welfare service, particularly in an area coping with the influx of rearguard action troops and the arrival of new units moving up to battle stations.
No one at that time could foresee what terrific demands would be made on the re-formed W.A.S.(B.) organisation when its canteens moved forward with the spearheads of the British forces driving into Burma. But the experience gained at Shillong and the preparations made during those months for further expansion proved invaluable when the time came to move into more forward areas.
By early 1943, mobile canteens were established at Tinsukia, north-east of Jorhat, on the Bengal-Assam railway and at Sookerating, the former a big troop centre and the latter an important air base. Another unit was functioning at the busy staging point of Pandu, just above the Brahmaputra ferry, where climatic conditions were exceptionally exhausting. Farther up the road at the first convoy halt there was another static canteen, catering for the men delayed sometimes for hours until the road gates were opened.
These canteens represented the first stage in the new development of the W.A.S. (B.) and it was on the record of their grand service in that area that they finally won permission to move into Imphal and Arakan. This permission was a real tribute to their work for the Army, always conservative towards any suggestion of women moving into front line areas, had at first been strongly opposed to letting the canteens far beyond the base.
The Wasbies themselves were well aware that they went to their new postings very much on probation as far as the Army commanders were concerned. Their task was two-fold, first to serve the troops and secondly to convince the Army authorities that their canteens would be an asset and in no sense a liability in forward areas. Imphal, in particular, proved a good testing ground, for it was soon under direct threat from strong Japanese forces and the record of the W.A.S.(B.) teams in those anxious days won such approval from the Army that Divisions, far from opposing the idea of having Wasbies in their areas, were actually asking that specific teams be allotted to them. After that period when the drive into Burma began, the only limit to W.A.S.(B.) movements was, for their own safety, that they should not have their camp forward of the Divisional Headquarters of the fighting units, though the mobile runs radiated far out from these centres.
The Canteens go into action
October 1943 is an important date in W.A.S.(B.) history, for it was then that the first canteen opened at Imphal and the unit became in actual fact a front-line service, then working with 4 Corps.
As soon as stores were unpacked the canteen made its first trip and the appearance of the girls in the area created something of a sensation among the troops. As soon as one man sighted them, all heads turned in the girls’ direction and the canteen was immediately besieged by troops eager to buy stores, but equally eager to chat for a few moments with the Wasbie team. Everywhere they went the men gave the girls’ a grand welcome and every unit sent in a request to be put on Wasbie itinerary. The arrival of the van at a camp was the signal for a head-long rush and as one gunner officer jokingly related, if the canteen arrived during routine drill there was nothing else for it but to dismiss the men.
The canteen made its first trip on October 12th and the next day the Wasbie team had their first experience of an air raid alarm. None of them had previously heard a siren except in the movies and as different units had varying signals, they missed the “all clear” siren and were still sitting under a hedge long after the raid was over.
For the first six weeks they used a three ton truck as the mobile vans were still back in the maker’s workshops. Packing-cases were used as counters in the truck and as only one girl could travel in the driver’s cab, other members of the team had to spend hours among the boxes at the back. The Wasbie truck operated on a forty mile radius around Imphal, over roads thick with dust and everywhere worn into deep ruts. When they reached the units the girls were white with dust and trickles of perspiration streaked a camouflage pattern over their faces. The girls laughed at their appearance and when relating their experiences, added that it was worth all the dust and dirt to see the men crowding and smiling as they opened up for business.
In addition to the various camps and gun-sites, the canteen also served patients at a casualty clearing station, caring for wounded from the Tiddim and Fort White battle areas.
By Christmas 1943, two Wasbie mobile vans were at work in the area, staffed by ten girls and shortly afterwards they took over the organisation of a rest camp the “Elephant Arms.” This was established to serve battle-weary troops of 4 Corps., mostly 17th Division troops who had fought the rearguard action right through Burma and then, after a short spell in Shillong for refitting, had gone back into action at Tiddim and Fort White. It was to be something well above the usual run of rest camps and the two Wasbies in charge of it fitted up individual basha for the men, a lounge with a big fireplace and dhobi and dherzi service for the troops who were to spend a week or ten days at the camp. Everything possible was done to give it the comfort and atmosphere of a first-rate club, even to early morning tea and the native staff turned out in white starched jackets. From the men’s own comments it was the early morning tea and being waited on by a uniformed staff which delighted them most and the complete contrast with front line conditions gave them just the break they so badly needed.
The success of the “Elephant Arms” was instant but short-lived, for it had been open only a week when the Japanese began their thrust towards the Indian border. The club was closed and the Wasbie teams evacuated to Dimapur.
Early in March 1944, secret orders were received from the G.O.C. 4 Corps that a mysterious force training in the jungle about 20 miles out of Imphal were to be visited twice a week without fail and to be given top priority in stores. This was part of the Second Wingate Expedition. On the canteen’s last visit the men were actually moving out and filled their haversacks with the last tin of biscuits and fruit they were to have for many weeks.
Another Wasbie activity in the pre-evacuation months was the operation of a mobile library for 23 Indian Division, initiated at the request of the G.O.C. who provided the van and the books on condition that one of the WAS. (B.) teams organise and supervise the library service to the widely scattered units. This was done and an itinerary worked out whereby each unit received boxes of books which were exchanged at each of the regular visits of the library van. It proved so popular and the books passed through so many hands, that the Wasbie librarian spent all her spare time keeping the volumes from falling to pieces.
Living conditions for the girls were much the same as for the administrative troops. Army rations were necessarily limited as to variety and a can of beans was a luxury in those days. It was an event when a quota of one egg a month for each person was announced, but the sequel to this was that four out of every five eggs proved uneatable.
The girls decided to have a vegetable garden to vary the menu. A plot was cleared – beans, peas, tomatoes and lettuce nursed along with infinite care. Troops used to lean over the fence and calculate how long it would be before the crop was ready. Everything went well. The early lettuces were cut, guests invited for the first boiling of green peas and then came the order to evacuate.
Month later, when the Wasbies returned even the fence had disappeared and jungle growth hid every trace of the precious garden.
The vegetables however, formed a very important part of the diet for the troops who moved into the Wasbie quarters during the siege of Imphal when rations were down to the absolute minimum.
The Japanese drive on Imphal and Kohima developed early in March and the canteens had less than twelve hours’ notice to close down and leave. The evacuation order came through while the mobile teams were out on their rounds. These were called in, a complete stock-taking made of the two big store-rooms and supplies handed back to bulk depots. Then came the packing of mess equipment and everything was finished half-an-hour before the armed escort arrived to take the teams down to Dimapur.
The evacuation party totalled about fourteen Wasbies and a group of nurses, the former travelling in the mobile canteens and the latter in the hospital ambulances. It was strictly a non-stop journey for the Japanese had already set up road blocks in the Tiddim area and it was feared that other enemy patrols moving in the Kohima zone might penetrate and cut the Imphal road. It was realised at Headquarters that the Japanese were launching a big move but the troops themselves were laying bets that the canteens would be back n three weeks. They were a long way out in their reckoning for it was July before the Wasbies returned to Imphal and by that time Kohima was a shambles.
But there was humour even in the evacuation, for although a signal had been sent through to Dimapur to arrange quarters for the women, they found nothing ready for them. The explanation was that the officer whose job it was to supervise arrangements for the evacuation group was “woman-shy,” and at the prospect of meeting so large a party had immediately gone “on tour” after issuing orders which were never carried out.
All women were out of the Imphal area by March 18th 1944 and shortly afterwards it was completely cut off by the Japanese except for a hazardous jeep track over the Silchar Pass.
Every Wasbie team was working at top pressure. Thousands of troops were arriving every day at Jorhat Silchar and Dimapur. At the latter centre a mobile team worked a twelve-hour schedule, seven days a week, at the staging camps and gun-sites and was on hand whenever troops moved out to their battle stations. For some there was only a matter of hours between their arrival and departure, but it was time enough for the Wasbies to see that they got all the stores they needed and a mug of tea and something to eat as a send-off.
Often these mobile units came straight from an eight or ten hour spell of duty to help at the other Wasbie centres. They were dead tired but they had no time to realise it and besides, everybody else in those hectic days was tired also. The routine began at dawn with the issue of kitchen stores and orders to the native cooks, followed by the all-important job of getting stores from the Army depots, which, since man-power was at a premium, often involved shifting and loading heavy cases by the girls themselves. Meanwhile other members of the team had already started work at the canteen, some might have been on duty all night if a troop train had arrived and the daylight hours brought in a continuous stream of troop-carriers. The telephone could call out the Wasbies any hour of the day or night and the teams could have been twice their strength and still overworked had recruits been available.
The men from Arakan had just come out of heavy fighting in that area, arriving tired, hungry and many of them air-sick but right along the landing ramp there was always a Wasbie canteen to welcome them. If the men were lucky enough to get a few days’ spell before going out to action stations, they got another chance to stock up with supplies and taste tea and cakes which somehow seemed very different from anything turned out by their own cooks.
The days were never long enough, but one of the girls, with a fondness for anything that looked like a horse, managed to find time to feed the mules of a mountain regiment with bits of broken biscuit and cake when the animals were flown into the area.
Meanwhile, the situation at Kohima was even worse with a handful of troops encircled by strong Japanese forces. Enemy patrols fanned out and established road blocks within 23 miles of Dimapur and it was at this stage that the Wasbie teams got their second evacuation order. This time they were to move to Jorhat, where a W.A.S.(B.) canteen had been functioning for some months. With the arrival of 33 Corps from the Arakan, the former Imphal teams were needed to cope with the heavy influx of troops. The road between Jorhat and Dimapur was also threatened and the military authorities banned all traffic over it except vehicles engaged on operational patrols. But there was one supply truck which got through from Jorhat and one convoy which made the run back after the ban was issued. The key to that incident lay in the fact that the W.A.S.(B.) canteens at Jorhat, serving thousands of men passing through to the Kohima and Imphal battlefields, were almost out of stores and since canteens are useless without stores, the W.A.S.(B.) Commandant Mrs Taylor, knowing that big stocks existed at Dimapure, decided to go through and get them She set off in a truck with one European Officer, who knew nothing of the closing of the road. She didn’t tell him for the simple reason that he would have refused to allow her to go and was amazed when told that Japanese forces were reported in the area. Persuaded into telling this story after it had been related by others, Mrs Taylor made no account on her reaction to the possibility of danger from enemy units, but frankly admitted that her knees quaked at the thought of the reception she would get at Army Headquarters in Dimapur. A stunned silence greeted her appearance and before the military chiefs had time to recover from the shock she had time to state why she was there and just what she wanted. Her case was quickly stated. She got not only the stores but a convoy of trucks to carry them back to Jorhat.
Within a month the situation in Dimapur had improved so much that the Wasbies were again allowed into the area and remained there serving 33 Corps troops and reinforcements from Arakan and India going through to the Kohima Imphal battles.
At Silchar another canteen was started doing similar work with the troops flooding into that area. This mobile unit, working on an 80 mile radius around Silchar. Driving was particularly difficult in this area, for every trip involved several ferry crossings and getting the heavy mobile canteen across was a tricky job even for an expert driver. The approach to the ferry was invariably over soft ground and had to be taken at a high speed to avoid getting bogged. But as the ferries were only just long enough to take the van it was a case of first full speed ahead, then a dead stop at exactly the right second. The dream of every Wasbie in that team was a ferry without hair-raising hazards.
Troops stationed around Silchar zone included men of the Chindit force, then in training for the glider run into Myitkyina and also a paratroop unit. Chindits and paratroopers were constant visitors at the W.A.S.(B.) mess as well as regular canteen customers. The mobile unit likewise served men of an African Division and staging camps and gun crews.
Several Japanese raids were made on Silchar at that time and for minor excitements a leopard decided to make its sleeping quarters on the veranda of the W.A.S.(B.) mess.
Up at Jorhat the routine was much the same. Air crews and ground staff handling the constant stream of air-borne supplies to besieged Kohima were among the canteen’s customers. Troops moving in and out from operational stations, gunners holding back Japanese air attacks, casualties flown out of the fighting zone and the thousands of base troops stationed there, all came to know that they could look for at least one bright spot in the routine of those grim weeks – a visit from the Wasbies. It was a tough job for the canteen staff. Many of the girls had gone straight into the north Burma “flap” after only the shortest training interval at Shillong. They worked twelve and fourteen hours a day in a country where before the war it was thought that white women could live only if surrounded with every comfort. The roads were incredible, deep in dust during the dry months and equally deep in mud during the monsoon. The temperature inside the mobile vans often touched 120 degrees and back at the canteen constant supervision was necessary to keep stores and supplies available for the men.
The teams also developed their own intelligence and liaison service so that no unit or group of men arrived or departed without a mobile unit visiting them. Indeed, it was a big part of their job to get the canteens where they were most needed and as the Army officers came to realise the value of the work the girls were doing, everyone co-operated in keeping the Wasbies posted on this essential information.
At Rear Headquarter in Shillong, the Assistant Commandant, Mrs St. John and her staff worked miracles getting equipment and supplies through to the canteens and at the same time trained and outfitted the recruits arriving from India. W.A.S.(B.) Area Commanders were responsible for the forward area administration work, under the orders of the Commandant, who travelled so often between the two main fields of activity in north Burma and the Arakan, that she literally moved and worked non-stop for months at a time. Her narrow escapes when travelling by plane were so frequent that her luck became proverbial among the girls.
At this time Her Excellency Lady Dorman-Smith, wife of the Governor of Burma, honoured the service by becoming Honorary Chief Commander of the W.A.S.(B.)
There was now no shadow of doubt in the minds of the Army authorities about the value of W.A.S.(B.) teams in forward zones. The only trouble was that there were never enough of them, but even in the crowded months of early 1944, Mrs Taylor and her senior officers were preparing for the expansion which was carried through when the British forces switched from defence to attack and moved into Burma on the drive which was to take them right to Rangoon.
Service for the Indian Division
Meanwhile a W.A.S.(B.) canteen had been opened at Chittagong in December 1943 and three months later another was started at Dohazari, both places handling masses of troops for the Arakan and north Burma combat areas.
Roads at Chittagong were too rough and steep for the heavy mobile vans, so the Wasbies used 15 cwt. trucks and often had as many as ten vehicles out on the run. Their work was divided between the docks, transit camps, gun-sites and airfields at Chittagong and two visits were made each week to Dohazari before a permanent canteen was established there.
By February 1944, one van was operating as far down as Tumbru, near the border of Burma and only about 30 miles from Japanese occupied territory. Arakan fighting had been heavy and no sooner had the tension relaxed in that sector than troops had to be switched to north Burma to hold the Indian frontier.
On March 17th, the mobile unit at Chittagong was about to leave for Dohazari to meet 5 Indian Division passing through from the Arakan to Dimapur. The trucks were loaded, cakes and sandwiches packed and everything ready for a daylight start. Then suddenly word came through that a troopship had been sunk on its way from Calcutta to Chittagong and the entire Wasbie team was needed at the docks to care for the survivors. Eight hundred men had been picked up by the rescue ships and about the same number were missing. The survivors had been in the water for as long as twelve hours and were suffering so much from shock and exposure that many were incapable of even holding a cup of tea. Others were so dazed and stunned that they just sat staring into space until the rescue staffs persuaded them to eat and drink something.
Most pathetic of all were the men who sat hour after hour refusing to be moved from the docks as they waited and watched for their mates whom they had last seen in the ship or in the water.
The canteen staff was needed in a dozen places at once, there was no time to serve anyone but survivors, so when a Brigadier in a freshly-pressed uniform asked for a cup of tea, the Wasbie O.C. ignored him, saying as she hurried off to meet another boatload of men, “sorry, but we are only looking after rescued men now.” Later she learned that the Brigadier was himself a survivor but had managed to change his uniform before returning to work among his men.
Then as soon as the last of the rescue boats came in, the canteen was reloaded and the girls set off for Dohazari to meet 5 Indian Division troops. They set up a tea stall immediately they arrived and soon afterwards a request was made that the mobile canteen go out to some troops moving up to the north. It was then pitch dark and the guide who was to have taken them to the unit failed to appear. At one in the morning they gave up the search and next day a message of apology for not meeting the men was sent to the troops who had already moved forward. More than a year later that message was acknowledged when one of the men walked into a W.A.S.(B.) canteen in Rangoon and related how the story of the canteen’s night-long search had reached the men when they were already in action. Their own exhaustion was forgotten when they saw what their work meant to the war-weary men. All the troops had come straight from battle stations in the Arakan, all badly in need of supplies and many arrived without having had a meal in twelve hours.
One emergency call came through just as the girls returned from a long mobile trip. They immediately set off for the unit, but on arrival there found the camp was out of water and there was no time to fetch any. So the team just opened up everything edible in the canteen, giving the men canned fruit and biscuits and doing a non-stop trade in such stores as razor blades, toothbrushes, writing materials, cigarettes, soap and whatever else the men wished to take with them. Within a matter of hours that particular unit was in action against the Japanese. No sooner had 5 Indian Division passed through than 7 Indian Division troops arrived and the rush began all over again. All day long the girls made the rounds of the airfields meeting troop carrying planes, others were at the railway station to serve the men who came by train and there was, of course, the usual routine runs to gunners and base troops scattered around Dohazari. The amount of sandwiches and cakes served from the canteens was enormous. Every morning 500 loaves were needed for the sandwiches and 200 large slab cakes cut into slices. Often at the end of a day’s work the girls hands were so badly blistered that they had to be bandaged and as a background to the actual canteen work was the never-ending problem of getting stores from Chittagong, the business of balancing accounts, keeping transport maintenance up to date and humouring the native staff into working far longer than they had expected when they took on the job.
Eventually it was decided that a permanent canteen was needed at Dohazari and a big basha was built, capable of accommodating up to a thousand men. The mobile rounds were extended to Buthidaung and Maungdaw, a two-day trip each week and boat runs initiated along the river to serve troops still operating in Arakan. A canteen was established at Tumbru in January 1944, the W.A.S.(B.) mess being a basha on a slope just above the main road. The main stores depot was also on a hill just above the road and every morning the girls did a P.T. exercise getting the boxes of supplies from the depot to the trucks. The W.A.S. (B.) van operated 30 miles down the road within sight of the famous Ngakyedauk Pass, a heart-breaking country of dense jungle and narrow tracks threading across the razor-back mountain ridges. That trip brought the Wasbies right to the fringe of the fighting. The whole area had been fiercely contested for months, the trees blasted by shellfire stood out against the skyline like toothpicks – the gunners called it “shaving the jungle.” In the hills between Buthidaung and Maungdaw, abandoned railway tunnels were alternately seized and lost and it was the little Gurkhas, always great favourites at the canteen, because of their unfailing good humour, who finally drove out the Japanese after advancing up slopes which would have made a mountain goat think twice before tackling them.
On one occasion the Wasbies had just opened up their canteen when they noticed Gurkhas in battle kit perched in the trees nearby, while others were moving through the tall grass. “Those men are operational lookouts and you are right on the edge of the combat area,” said an officer.
Not far away R.A.F. pilots were making a strike on a Japanese hill position overlooking the British area and field gunners, softening up the Japs for an infantry assault, let loose a deafening roar of explosives.
There was nothing of the base area atmosphere about this sector. Often the troops at the canteen were going straight out on patrol, with Tommy guns, hand grenades and in full fighting kit. The “char and chatter” at the canteen meant a lot to those men and the chance to help make their job even a degree less grim was, to the Wasbie girls, something they could express in service but never in words.
That service found expression in a hundred different ways. It made them adept at getting supplies of goods which were generally regarded as unobtainable, in overcoming a score of difficulties in cake-making from a limited range of ingredients, it enabled them to meet the troops with a grin and a cheerful word when they were long past their normal limit of physical endurance and kept them on the job through every difficulty and discomfort. Right throughout every canteen the girls did the same grand job for the men. They were determined to earn the privilege of partnership with the fighting troops and encouraged and inspired by their Commandant, they built up a splendid tradition of service. Troops and officers alike acknowledged it in the reception they gave the teams and in the very real comradeship which developed between the canteen staff and the Army units they served.
Canteen duties introduced the Wasbies to many strange jobs and some not so strange, but in pre-war days never attempted by white women living under tropical conditions. For instance, at Tumbru the native canteen staff turned out enough slab cakes and fudge, a substitute for unobtainable sweets and chocolate, to serve anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 men a day. It was a task big enough even for a trained cook with a full staff. But when all the servants disappeared one morning, the girls took over the kitchen duties themselves and at the same time maintained their normal canteen duties. It was a week before the native staff reappeared and to add to their difficulties, the girls took on this work at the very hottest time of the year. They summed it up as an excellent recipe for losing weight and a rigorous but effective lesson in learning to cook at a moment’s notice.
The monsoon was just about to break as 5 and 7 Indian Divisions began their move out of Arakan to north Burma. The road past the basha was a foot deep in fine dust and night and day for three weeks without a break a continuous line of tanks, jeeps, trucks, ducks and “everything on wheels,” smothered the whole are in dust. The men moved out of the area with stores bought from the Tumbru canteen and with recollections of many a cheering cup of tea at the roadside halts. Arriving tired, hungry and covered in dust at Dohazari, they found another of the familiar black chinthe-sign canteens waiting to serve them before they moved off to their transit camps and when finally they stepped off the planes in north Burma, the WAS. (B.) mobile vans were there to meet them again. But more than that, though then it was only a project in the mind of the
W.A.S.(B.) Commandant, the canteens were to keep pace with them right through the re-conquest of Burma.
One of the men flown from Dohazari to Dimapur looked in astonishment at the mobile van waiting for the men on the airstrip. The canteen, the girls uniforms, the routine of serving and the well-stocked store shelves were all the same, “how did you get here before us?” he asked in bewilderment, “you were still handing out tea when we took off at Dohazari.” “We’re a chain service,” the Wasbies told him. “We just crop up wherever we’re needed.”
The battle of Kohima was being fought when the W.A.S.(B.) organisation sent a team out to Dimapur the limit of British held territory on the Kohima road and remained with the advance units until the town was recaptured. Another team then went forward into the hill station and saw for the first time the full horror of modern war.
Returning to Imphal and monsoon conditions
Kohima was a shambles when the W.A.S. (B.) canteen arrived two weeks after the Japanese defeat. Rains had washed away the earth from the shallow hastily-scooped graves and the bodies of the dead lay exposed as the girls picked their way through the wreckage. Their mess was a rat infested shell-torn house, stacks of un-exploded ammunition stood in the weed-grown garden and the path to the road lay through a line of Japanese fox-holes. Skulls littered Garrison Hill where, amid the ruins of a tennis court, British and Japanese troops had fought it out with hand grenades and bayonets. The shadow and stench of death hung like a pall above the desolation.
It was to help offset this grim background that the Army authorities had asked for a W.A.S.(B.) canteen, and the girls went into the area with a big job on their hands. The monsoon had started, roads were quagmires, twisting across steep hills and sodden valleys. The canteen staff had the choice of wearing hot, clammy rain capes and gumboots or working socked to the skin by storms.
Slowly Kohima came back to life, the scattered, half-buried bodies were removed from the roadsides and footpaths, red lilies pushed their way through the ruined gardens and perhaps the sight of women sharing the hardships of that area helped the troops to forget the grimness of their surroundings. The Wasbies were old friends of 7 Indian Division, then operating out of Kohima, and down on the road to Imphal another canteen was renewing its acquaintance with 2 British Division, resting there after front-line duty. This latter canteen was located in a sheet-iron and tarpaulin shack right in the centre of the main camp, the parade ground parallel with their front door. The girls were soon accepted as an integral part of the unit, each member of the team proud of their partnership with the troops, while the men felt the same way about the W.A.S.(B.) unit. When it was decided that slip trenches should be dug in the canteen compound, the Sergeant remarked that for the first time in his Army career he had been swamped by a rush of volunteers for fatigue duty. And when the W.A.S.(B.) officer remarked that she could never get her team up before the last minute before breakfast, the next morning a bugler sounded reveille outside the canteen with such effect that the girls were nearly “blasted” out of bed.
The monsoon was on. The rains beat a constant tattoo on the galvanised iron walls of the W.A.S.(B.) quarters and dripped through the tarpaulin roof. The Wasbies clumped through the mud in heavy ammunition boots, transport bringing in supplies got marooned on the flooded road and stores were damaged by the heavy rains but the girls reports to headquarters were that they had never been so happy in any place because before they had never been so much a part of a force.
With the Japanese forces thrown back into the hills and the thrust towards India smashed, preparations were under way at Army Headquarters for the re-conquest of Burma. Imphal was being built up as a major base for the campaign and Jorhat was equally busy. For the W.A.S.(B.) canteens at these points this meant catering for an ever-increasing number of troops and the maintenance of both static and mobile units. And to the south of Dohazari and Chittagong, key bases and supply centres, the W.A.S.(B.) work was much the same. The Imphal canteen re-opened in July 1944 with the “Elephant Arms,” as a static unit. Mobile vans catered for the widely scattered units on the Imphal plane and operated 50 miles down the Tiddim Road. A regular three-day trip was made to Tamu, taking the girls over the border into Burma to serve men of an East African Division. Bedrolls and clothing were never dry, the three-ton trucks churned through a sea of mud and stores were sold under hastily erected shelters on the roadside. At Tamu the Wasbies saw a Buddhist temple where the bodies of dead Japanese still lay unburied. On one trip a big striped snake was discovered in their tent. One of the girls screamed and ran, the other ran also, but after and not away from the snake, eager to secure its skin as a trophy.
In the south, the main W.A.S.(B.) canteens were at Dohazari, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar, where, as the girls phrased it, “troops milled in thousands.” The big basha at Dohazari was always crowded, the mobile trips kept the girls busy often for as much as twelve hours a day and there was still plenty of work at the railway station, the airfield and the gun-sites. Sales of tea, sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and canteen stores set new records for the W.A.S.(B.) organisation.
At Cox’s Bazaar the “Arakanteen” was opened, where every night about 300 men were served with egg and bacon suppers and often the Wasbies who staffed it had been out all day on mobile trips over terrific roads and serving long queues of men for hours at a stretch. And with this went the day to day routine of securing bulk stores, issuing kitchen supplies for the next day’s quota of sandwiches, cakes and canteen suppers. Transport, equipment, accounts, monthly stocktaking and general supervision filled in the rest of the day, with always some special job to be done. But the reports filed at head office contain no complaint about being too busy, the complaints came only when some dispersal of Army strength temporarily left a canteen with spare time on its hands. At Dohazari the W.A.S.(B.) mess was situated in a house on the banks of the Sangu river. In August 1944, monsoon rains raised the water level thirty feet in forty-eight hours and the main traffic bridge was in danger. African troops were called in to clear away the mass of debris from the bridge supports and the W.A.S.(B.) canteen went out to serve them with hot tea laced with rum. The river was a mass of swirling wreckage, the bodies of dead cattle and hundreds of drowned natives tangled among the logs, bashas and rubbish caught in the flood.
Back at the W.A.S.(B.) mess the river crept steadily towards the foundations of the house and the girls were told to pack and be ready to move the moment the water reached the walls of the building. Six trucks were parked nearby to get the equipment away. By the light of hurricane lamps the Wasbies watched the river rise throughout the night and at dawn the water level began to fall and the danger was over. The bridge collapsed in the early hours of the morning and for the canteen this meant getting supplies ferried across the river in rowboats. It meant also, a temporary cessation of the river trips which had been made to units along the banks when supplies were taken out in khistis towed by a motorboat.
Chittagong was always busy. Troops moving in and out of the Arakan fighting passed through it, the railway to Dohazari still carried reinforcements for north Burma, masses of supplies came in by sea, rail and air for despatch to the northern and southern battlefields. By December 1944 W.A.S.(B.) canteens had put in a year’s work at this port and were to meet still heavier demands in the months to follow. The mobile vans were a familiar sight to the balloon barrage crews and gunners manning the anti aircraft posts and trips were being made by small harbour craft to reach defence positions along the creeks. Work on the docks continued steadily month after month with the harbour always crowded with shipping. There was little excitement to break the monotony until the new drives to Akyab and Ramree began to take shape. The Chittagong canteens also took on the additional job of getting stores through to north Burma and Arakan teams, a service which did much to build up the W.A.S.(B.) record for supplying front-line troops with everything that could possibly be obtained to relieve the hardships of the campaign.
Chittagong teams had none of the thrills of working almost within gunshot of battle areas. Their job was long and exacting, dull by comparison with the work at front-line areas, in that they supplied stores to W.A.S.(B.) canteens in Burma, but vastly important to the men they served. Without them there would have been a big gap in the chain of canteens for the men of the Burma Command and their records of cheerful, unflagging service ranks as a fine piece of work.
You get some idea of their sense of responsibility towards the troops from an incident which occurred early in 1945 when forces were being massed at Chittagong for the landing on Ramree Island. At that time, General Leese had just launched the campaign which was finally to clear the Japanese out of Arakan and 25 Indian Division commenced the move south into the Mayu Peninsula. Chittagong had been more than usually busy handling the base preparations for this action and an increased tempo of activity automatically was felt by the W.A.S.(B.) canteens. The Ramree operations started a peak period for the Chittagong canteens. The girls were aware that another big move was imminent, a fact which was obvious because no operational troops were allowed out of their camps, but the usual secrecy surrounding the preparations was maintained and the Wasbies knew nothing of the actual embarkation date. Late one night, however, an Embarkation Officer casually remarked that no doubt the canteens were ready to be on the docks at six the next morning and was astonished to learn that they had received no orders. It was then midnight. Nothing was ready for such a big job, which called for special reserves of food and stores. The B.O.R. driver had gone back to his camp and most of the W.A.S.(B.) team were already asleep. The officer in charge of the canteen just couldn’t see how anything could be done at such late notice but the thought of troops embarking for a landing operation without a canteen to send them off, kept her awake all night.
At four in the morning she stopped worrying, wakened the girls, got the servants up and at work in the kitchen, sent a message through to the B.O.R. driver and began loading the canteen. The van and its team was at the docks before day-light with fires heating two forty-gallon drums of water for the tea. The first batch of cakes and the first troops arrived simultaneously and the canteen was ready for the men as they marched on to the docks. That job continued for about two weeks until the last of the Ramree troops left Chittagong. By that time the first casualties were coming back and the Wasbies were on hand to meet them with cigarettes and tea. Later they visited the men in hospital, the walking cases served from the mobile van and the canteen staff taking trays of supplies to the ward patients.
It was just another item added to the regular daily round, carried through without additional staff because no girls could be spared from other teams. That story could be repeated a dozen times, the emergency varying with the needs of the moment, but all put through as part of the day’s work and receiving scarcely a comment in the routine reports.
A valuable Auxiliary of the Fighting Forces
The progress made by the W.A.S.(B.) organisation in its first two years as a canteen unit was such that by January 1945 it was firmly established as a valuable auxiliary of the fighting forces. Canteens were operating at Shillong – still a big base area, at Imphal, Jorhat, Kohima, Dimapur and with various units throughout the forward areas along the Burma-India border. Big static canteens and mobile vans served the troops at Dohazari, Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong. Another had functioned at Tambru until the monsoon made further work impossible. Thousands of men regularly patronised the static centres, which not only sold tea and cakes, suppers and supplies, but wherever possible provided the men with a club and recreation room where they could spend their spare time in an atmosphere as nearly home-like as the girls could make it. As for the mobile units, they catered for the servicemen cut off from normal canteen contacts and as the preceding chapters have shown, were called in for practically every type of emergency work. The W.A.S.(B.) black chinthe badge had become as familiar to Indian, African and British troops as their own Divisional signs and for many of them the Wasbie canteens and mobile vans represented the only amenity possible to isolated units of men in transit.
The original W.A.S.(B.) recruits had quickly become veterans in dealing with the many problems of canteen work under the difficult conditions existing in the Burma Command area and those who passed through the Shillong training base were to do equally good work in the crowded months of 1945.
January of that year found the British forces throughout the Burma border areas launched on bold offensives. In the north, Divisions had started the drive through mountainous jungle country, Arakan, Akyab and Ramree were taken, and the pattern of victory was foreshadowed in the plans for the final drive to Rangoon.
W.A.S.(B.) teams attached to 33 Corps H.Q. and 4 Corps H.Q. moved down with them, opening canteens on the airstrips to which essential supplies were flown in. These canteens were located in tents or bashas just off the runways and the girls worked from early morning until evening in an atmosphere thick with dust, heat and flies, serving tea and cakes to the pilot, crews and troops. As the two H.Q.’s moved down and a new airstrip took the place of the old, the Wasbies moved forward.
Another essential job was the running of canteens in the Medical Centres just behind the line, really casualty clearing stations. Every day the girls went round the wards, full of badly wounded men, with toothpaste etc. to replace the kit they had lost and served tea and cakes to those who could walk. Conditions here were especially trying, with the heat and flies and the inevitable hospital smells.
The W.A.S.(B.) teams moved with the troops as part of the force, a front-line service in the most literal sense of the word. One canteen was attached to 7 Indian Division on its 1,000 mile fighting trek from Kohima, another team went with 5 Indian Division from Jorhat, pushing south through Kalewa and Myingyan. W.A.S.(B.) teams were flown into the Myitkyina zone, their stepping stones the battlefields which opened the way to Meiktila – the Waterloo for Japanese hopes in Burma and then continued southwards to Rangoon. Wasbies were at Shwebo, Mandalay, Prome, Tharrawaddy, Kalaw, Toungoo, Pegu, Mingaladon and Moulmein. They put in busy months at Akyan and Ramree and back at Chittagong, Dohazari and Cox’s Bazaar Wasbies kept their canteens functioning as long as large numbers of troops remained in those areas. And helping to make possible the general work of all these teams and still caring for troops moving through the hills of Assam, a W.A.S.(B.) canteen and the Rear Headquarters administrative staff functioned at Shillong.
All major administrative matters, of course, were handled at W.A.S.(B.) Headquarters under the direction of the Commandant and her staff gave her splendid co-operation. Located at first at Shillong, a move was subsequently made to Monewya in Burma with the 14th Army Headquarters. Later, when the W.A.S.(B.) organisation became A.L.F.S.E.A. troops, another transfer was made to Barrackpore, with subsequent moves to Kandy and Singapore. Finally, W.A.S.(B.) Headquarters returned to Burma and from Rangoon arrangements were made for the disbandment of the unit.
The responsibilities of the Headquarters staff during Mrs Taylor’s frequent visits to the various canteens were heavy and members of this team contributed in no small measure to the success of the Wasbie service.
Area Commanders likewise did a grand job of work in their various zones. With Mrs Taylor, one of their key tasks was to move in ahead of the canteens, select canteen and mess locations and carry out the preliminary work in opening up new areas.
The Commandant and her Area Commanders had many lively adventures on these survey moves into recently recaptured country. While checking over the Tumbru area before the opening of a canteen there, two W.A.S.(B.) officers were surprised to find the road crowded with trucks, troops, armoured vehicles, guns and tanks Although the area was clear when given permission to pass through, it had suddenly become the scene of sharp skirmishes with enemy patrols. And later the two Wasbies had to move out of their basha when it came in the line of fire from a British gun position.
On another occasion, Mrs Taylor and an Area Commander, when making their way to Corps Headquarters, found themselves on a river bank among British troops who were exchanging gunfire with Japanese forces on the other side.
But even more alarming was a seven mile walk through the jungle at night after her jeep had broken down. She confesses that she was never more scared in her life, for she was alone at the time and every step might have meant walking into an enemy ambush.
The Commandant was frequently flown into areas the day after the Japanese were driven out, making preliminary preparations for setting up Wasbie canteens and it was these constant front-line visits which made it possible for the W.A.S.(B.) teams to maintain an almost unbroken service to the fighting units.
The story of one canteen which worked with 7 Indian Division is typical of the job done by teams which accompanied the combat columns from north Burma. This mobile unit was at Kohima in December 1944, where 7 Division was resting in preparation for the forthcoming campaign. When orders came through to start the big move, the W.A.S.(B.) canteen went with them. Packing up was a big task, for it was realised that stores would be difficult to obtain along the track and when the team moved out of Kohima it took with it three fully-loaded three-ton trucks in addition to the mobile canteen, with a total stock worth about 25,000 rupees.
The first staging point was at the top of the Mintha track and Christmas found them near Tamu, camped in the shadow of great teak forests. The journey from Kohima to Tamu gave the Wasbies a fair sample of the transport difficulties which lay ahead, for the “road” was a bullock track ripped just wide enough by bulldozers to permit the movement of heavy equipment. The dust often made it impossible to see a foot ahead in daylight and travelling in convoy meant innumerable delays and constant danger of collisions.
The canteen, like other W.A.S.(B.) units, had two main tasks. First to have tea and cakes available for the men whenever practicable and secondly, to keep them supplied with such goods as soap, cigarettes, razor blades, writing materials and similar canteen stores. To a civilian the opportunity to purchase such articles may seem a small matter, but to troops completely isolated from any normal source of supple, it was a big thing and proved to be an important factor in maintaining morale on what was one of the most difficult and arduous campaigns of the entire war.
Maintaining stocks on that long trek taxed the resourcefulness of the Wasbie team to the utmost. From the Tamu area they succeeded in sending back two trucks to Imphal for additional stores but from that point on everything the Army needed had to come in by air and air transports were crowded with high priority loads.
The canteen unit comprised one mobile canteen, five trucks, one jeep and one general purpose van and when on the move even the jeep was loaded with stores so that the “shop” could be opened whenever the convoys halted. Wasbie technique at the various camps soon resolved itself into a routine. First an oven had to be built, cakes made and baked and a tea stall improvised under the shade of trees, with packing cases as counters. There was an unfailing demand for chocolate and sweets but as these were unobtainable the girls taught their native cooks to make fudge, always popular with the troops and in the hot weather served lemon and orange squash drinks as well as tea.
The oven was usually made from empty ammunition boxes and a length of pipe, with mud taking the place of bricks. Tents were improvised from supply parachutes and before camp could be made the tall elephant grass had to be cleared away.
From the outset it was a fighting campaign and moves were made as soon as forward areas were cleared of Japanese. The canteens staff, however, had little time for following strategic details, they moved whenever the Division moved and at every stop along the route they got their tea stall and shop functioning for the men. Often as soon as the convoy completed it day’s run, two of the Wasbie team would take the mobile van to troops who had been out of reach of the canteen. Small static units were set up at the various camps and along the airstrips where supplies were brought in to the Division. Sometimes their “customers” were men just going into action, others were men just returning from fighting patrols, those who slogged ahead cutting a road through the jungle, patients and staff at the casualty clearing stations, air crews and in fact, all those who moved with the Division.
The whole countryside swarmed with Japanese, overland lines of communication did not exist for the road closed as the last convoy moved over it, supplies came first by parachute to advance units and by freight-carrying planes when emergency landing strips were hacked out of the jungle.
The Wasbies soon came to know most of the units in the Division, both British and Indian and they saw to it that wherever possible the troops received a visit from the mobile van and were given every chance to stock up with the supplies it carried. A twelve-hour day was the general rule and they frequently had to pack up and move at less than an hour’s notice, and with dogged determination they kept the ovens going until the very last minute so there would be a supply of cakes immediately a new camp was struck, often dismantling and loading the precious oven and its chimney still hot from the fire.
By the middle of February the Division was fighting on the Mytche bank of the Irrawaddy and the Wasbie team crossed the river daily to serve units on the opposite bank. Thanks to their foresight in bringing the maximum amount of stores and the good work done by the Chittagong W.A.S.(B.) teams in getting further supplies flown in to them, 7 Indian Division canteen was never completely out of supplies, though often little could be obtained from the bulk depots of the force.
At the Mytche bank camp the Wasbies were within sound of gunfire and in contrast their camp practically overlooked the famous ruins of Pagan, one-time capital of Burma. In April another move was made, this time to Chauk, where they were quartered in what was left of an oilfield worker’s house. More recently, however, it had been occupied by the Japanese, who had apparently used it as a brewery and in addition to the usual dirt and litter left by the enemy troops, it was infested with huge rats. The job of cleaning the place almost convinced the girls that the inconveniences of a parachute tent were preferable. The entire oilfield was completely wrecked and everything in the area had a dirty smear of oil, even the Irrawaddy was affected. Stores were perilously low as the boat carrying the C.B.I.D. stocks down the river was stranded on a sand-bank and no supplies reached the Division for three weeks. During that time the troops only source of cigarettes was the Wasbie’s canteen.
At this particular time all the fighting troops were engaged in active operations and the girls job was to make sure that the various units and patrols got a visit from the canteen as they moved in and out from the actual battle area.
The force was now out of the teak forests, the mists and moisture of the hills and into the planes area, a comparatively dry region where water supply was a problem immediately the Division moved from the river banks.
In May a further advance was made from Chauk to Yenangyaung and the W.A.S.(B.) team was asked to start a large club for the British troops in addition to their usual canteen work. The mobile van visited advance units beyond Yenangyaung but the General, when he learned of them, banned further such trips as the area was considered too dangerous. But this didn’t worry the Wasbies greatly, for, as they commented in their reports, “by that time we had served most of the troops with supplies, so it didn’t really matter.”
Instead they set about making a really attractive club. Coloured parachutes were collected and made into curtains, cushions and tablecloths, counters, tables and chairs were improvised and everything was ready for the opening day. At that stage, however, the girls discovered an Army officer paying off the club coolies. Replying to their astonished queries he answered “Oh! Didn’t you know we were moving? Everyone is going back into action immediately.” With a big strategic move on their hands, the authorities had completely forgotten about the club it had ordered. It joined the long line of abandoned tea stalls, discarded canteen equipment and temporary parachute tents, which marked the trail of the W.A.S.(B.) team on the route from Kohima.
With the monsoon in full swing, the move to Allanmyo was more than usually difficult. The canteen vehicles got stuck in a chaung, whipped by the heavy rains into a raging torrent. Some of the trucks were winched across, but most of the stores had to be left on the west bank. From there the Wasbies contacted their customers by using a “duck” as a canteen ferry, while other members of the team churned through the waterlogged roads to reach the troops then engaged in heavy fighting.
In June, the Division moved to Shwedaung, just below Prome, travelling through teeming rain and over incredible tracks. A tarpaulin had to be placed over the oven to prevent the mud being washed from the foundation before the fire could dry and set the “brickwork.” Here, as all along the track, the team had a batch of 1,000 cakes into the ovens within a few hours of making camp and were serving tea to the men before the cakes were baked.
Dead Japanese had been a common sight right throughout the journey, often a camp site had had to be changed because there were so many bodies in the area. But in the Shwedaung district thousands of enemy troops were roaming the area, desperately trying to escape across the river into the Moulmein area. British patrols, though then very definitely on a victory drive, were sometimes isolated in the mass of dis-organised Japanese forces and frequently got back to their base with nothing more than their fighting equipment. With their own “intelligence service,” always on the job, the W.A.S.(B.) team immediately loaded up the mobile van with all the things men need after such an action and got through to them with a matter of hours. The girls went out in launches along the canal to contact the troops fighting both the Japanese and the flood-waters. They worked through the unceasing rain and it was a luxury to get into dry clothes.
The canteen was at Pegu when the news came through that the war had ended and by way of celebration the girls organised a bonfire singsong for the troops in the courtyard of the famous Reclining Buddha of that town. Then, when 7 Indian Division moved to the bamboo flats south of Pegu for rest and refitting the Wasbies started a canteen to serve the traffic at the junction of the Pegu and Prome roads. From there the Division finally went to Bangkok and the W.A.S.(B.) team had to say good-bye to the troops of this Command. From December, 1944 to July 1945, on the trek from Kohima to Pegu, this canteen travelled just over a thousand miles through country where previously there had been only bullock tracks, or no tracks at all. The team had made fifteen major moves, sold 146,570 rupees worth of stores and constituted the only possible amenity for thousands of troops both British and Indian.This particular W.A.S.(B.) unit had the privilege of sharing in one of the key moves which led to the complete defeat of the Japanese Armies in Burma, but there were others who also made the north-south journey to Rangoon attached to one particular Division and many more canteens with less spectacular but equally important work in the campaign.
The Wasbies Push Further into Burma
This chapter concerns two canteens which were flown into Myitkyina area before Christmas 1944 and began the move south from that zone. One unit went to 36 Division Headquarters at Naba about 100 miles south of Myitkyina and the other arrived by plane at Katha. Both teams did a great job in providing the troops with a real Christmas atmosphere. The Katha team had a house as a canteen, selected by Mrs Taylor earlier. The first job was to get the stores unloaded from the Dakota which brought them in and that completed they immediately got to work with scrubbing brushes to clean up the canteen. Curtains and Christmas decorations were put up and a hot supper and special food ready for units going straight into action. Christmas day for these men was on December 21 – they were in action of the 25th – and it was the newly-arrived W.A.S.(B.) team which saw that they did not miss out on one of the traditional festivities.
The static canteen opened for the main group of troops on Christmas day. A live pig dropped by parachute so that roast port could be one of the main features of the Christmas dinner. But the pig, while still very much alive, escaped from its wicker crate and a lively chase followed before it was caught. It was probably one of the busiest Christmases the girls in that team will ever know, for in addition to getting the canteen started they had only two native servants and the bulk of the work had to be done by the Wasbie team.
There is an interesting story also regarding the team which went into Naba. Before leaving Shillong, the Assistant Commandant, Mrs St. John, had taken time out of her crowded days to pack up several large tins of mincemeat. Troops at the Shillong canteen gave up their Christmas rum ration to make sure the mincemeat was the real thing. And immediately the girls climbed out of their Dakota and had the first oven built, the mince pies were baked. The rest of the tale is perhaps best told by a patient at one of the nearby hospitals, who related how he had awakened on Christmas morning “to find angels standing by the bed with mince pies.” So far as he knew there were no women in the area, so his instant conclusion was that he must be in heaven. But perhaps there was good excuse for the momentary illusion, though W.A.S.(B.) uniforms and mince pies are not usually regarded as the accepted setting for heavenly spheres. Myitkyina at that time was very much a front-line area, few of the men ever expected to see women there and under jungle conditions such luxuries as mince pies and other Christmas fare seemed an impossibility to troops who had known very little more than monotonous rations dropped by parachute.
Just after Christmas the two teams were amalgamated and worked together until they reached Meiktila. The crossing of the Irrawaddy at Katha was a big undertaking, complicated, of course, by the fact that strong Japanese forces still had to be cleared out of the adjacent areas. Vehicles and equipment were ferried across the river by rafts, very flimsy structures compared with the loads they carried. There were accidents and some of the loads were lost. All the attention of the W.A.S.(B.) O.C. centred on the precious canteen trucks and stores, for if they were lost there was little hope of getting replacements without interminable delays. It is a revealing sidelight on the W.A.S.(B.) outlook that the girls frankly confessed to a bad attack of nerves while the vehicles and stores were crossing the river, while in the routine reports to Shillong there was never a line of anxiety about their own safety.
36 Division, like 7 Indian Division was supplied entirely by air and there were no overland lines of communication. When the Wasbies thought of stores, they also had to think of ways of getting them in front base depots. And their ways were many and diversified. Contracts with the American pilots got through many an extra cases of stores while the Chittagong team never missed an opportunity of getting stuff through to the northern units.
The teams reached Bahe early in February, some of the girls travelled by plane with the main bulk of the stores and the others accompanying the canteen trucks moved by road. With Bahe as their base, two mobile canteens took supplies out to the various units and several times the girls were within three miles of the enemy. All these trips were made with an armed escort and in addition to watching air strikes, the canteens served gunners who were actually firing their guns. Sometimes the trips had to be cancelled because there were too many Japanese snipers along the route and then the girls concentrated on static canteen work.
From the troops’ own comments, it was clear from the outset that the Division greatly appreciated the canteen and it meant a great deal to them to have the chance to see and talk to women during the long months of the campaign. An hour or so at the static canteen, or a visit to a unit by the mobile van made the troops feel less cut off from the outside world and it was possible, when chatting to the girls, to forget the war for a few minutes.
W.A.S.(B.) kitchen routine was never dull, for there was always some new problem cropping up. At one time cooking was complicated by a drastic absence of sugar and extensive experiments with crystallised ginger, cherries and other fruits produced a whole range of new recipes. Stores too, always had to be carefully guarded and it was never easy when moving on an average every ten days to find burglar-proof storage for the supplies.
The Division drove steadily southward over roads hacked out of the jungle by bulldozers. The small towns on their route were little more than piles of wreckage and as the British forces appeared, fugitive Burmese straggled back from their jungle hideouts. There were many unpleasant sights during their journey. The countryside was littered with Japanese troops dead of scrub typhus, malaria and dysentery and all the places evacuated by the enemy were in a filthy condition and as for living conditions, they were strictly campaign level and entirely dominated by the constant packing and unpacking. Along great stretches of the journey there was an atmosphere of complete desolation for the allied bombers were constantly hammering the positions ahead of the Division and there were many major engagements when the fighting troops took over the job of clearing out the Japanese.
A week was spent at Myitson and during the next halt at Mong Mit a rest camp was set up for the troops. The road to Mong Mit twisted so much that the two mobile vans had to be left behind with other heavy vehicles as their slow progress was holding up the convoy. At each corner the trucks had to reverse several times to negotiate the turn and at one point the road was only a short distance from a machine-gun battle.
While at Mong Mit the Burmese held a big celebration to mark the return to their area of the “Second Holiest Man in Burma.” The Wasbies celebration was the opening of a very busy canteen, where tea-making necessitated the use of 400 gallon of water every day. They lost count of the number of cakes and biscuits served to the troops.
Mogok, in the ruby mine country, was their next stop, with the surrounding countryside a mass of flowering shrubs, mostly white tulip tree and almond blossoms. The bungalow allotted to the girls also had a marvellous view, but at the same time it had very unpleasant souvenirs of the Japanese who had just left it. Scrubbing brushes, however, fixed that and then came an extermination foray against the mangy dogs which had taken up quarters under the house. Some very long mobile trips were made out from Mogok and the remainder of the team got a static canteen running.
On April 27th 1945, the canteen reached Meiktila and from that point 36 Division was flown out to India with the W.A.S.(B.) team serving them with tea and cakes for the last time as the men went aboard the troop-carrier planes. The official report to W.A.S.(B.) headquarters, covering a stay of several weeks at Meiktila, gives a graphic picture of the conditions there. In part, it read, “Meiktila is a town showing far more evidence of the fighting than any other area we have been through. Finding a site for the small static canteen was a most unpleasant job, for several locations had to be discarded after the discovery of “very dead” Japanese. Walking in the area was not encouraged, for many of the dead still lay unburied. The rains continually uncovered the shallow graves and after one heavy downpour we had to go out and re-bury a pair of booted legs which the storm left exposed near the house. Work at the canteen was the hardest we had tackled, for we had to contend not only with heat and flies but also bad water which affected the girls health. During the monsoon storms our big static canteen on the airstrip was continually blown down or was found looted and destroyed by the Burmese. But we managed to keep going in spite of it all and were able to get in stores of sweets and cigarettes, matches and a good variety of cakes was also possible. Subsequently, another small static unit was opened at the staging post for troops who had to wait many days before they could be flown out and even here we were using 80 gallons of water a day for tea.”
The following month the canteen moved by plane to Rangoon and there began the difficult job of finding accommodation and ascertaining in what location canteens were most needed. The W.A.S.(B.) team found Rangoon very “eerie” with all the building empty and no sign of life in the deserted streets. It was decided that this particular team should start a canteen at Mingaladon airfield, the work later being taken over by another unit. They started in a large tent and no amount of trench-digging around it prevented water seeping into it when the heavy rains started. As there was no way of locking up the place, all the canteen equipment had to be taken back to W.A.S.(B.) mess at night and then set up again the next morning. To leave everything unlocked was a guarantee that it would disappear within a few hours. Both a static and mobile canteen operated in this area, the latter taking stores as well as tea and cakes to the gun-crews and fitters scattered about the area. It was the same old story, troops beyond the reach of the static vans and the same story of limited stocks and strict rationing to give all the men a share.
The following paragraph from a Mingaladon report is interesting. “Over and above the canteen work we have tried to take part, as much as possible, in the local social life and have attended Darts Competitions among the men and similar affairs. At one Sergeants’ Mess, Spitfire pilots, doing a very sticky job themselves, brought us back stories of troops farther north who were cut off by the Japanese and were living in areas of paddy swamps, without cigarettes and completely miserable. The girls did up parcels of free cigarettes and enclosed short notes with each package. The pilots then took them out and dropped them to the troops. We have had many grateful letters back from the men.”
There were near-panic moments at the canteen. The fresh egg supply threatened to fail, the sandwich, sausage roll and cake supply was out unexpectedly when groups of men acting as deputies for isolated units came in with wholesale orders. The cook, reported that no cakes could be made because the firewood had disappeared and there was difficulty with sour earthen floors, which had to be covered with sand as no disinfectants were obtainable. But there was no panic when dacoits were reported in the area or when the girls were ordered to the upper floor of their new mess while troops cleared stray Japanese from the compound.
Comfort was something they had almost forgotten and when there was time to acquire a few fixtures and furnishings it was an event in their lives. They wrote “ Life is getting civilised. We have now two baths and a basin and finally, we got the two pull plugs fixed so that they can be worked without anxiety as to the results. This is a great relief, as we did have an awful afternoon recently when a frightfully proper officer came to interview us about ovens and had his conversation constantly interrupted by one plug working itself noisily like a rushing waterfall, at intervals of three minutes.”
And again “Two friendly sergeants are laying on electric lights for us. I think they are enjoying the job too much to give us more than one light at a time, but we have three points. The light in the sitting room is now so bright that the next we shall have to find is some colour-wash for the walls. We have even collected an upholsterer and a few skeleton chairs, which it is hoped he will cover for us in due course. Altogether it is a most “un-Wasbie mess.”
An R.A.F. Squadron asked permission to use the canteen as a club in the evenings and this was granted on condition that equipment and furnishings be used with care. The boys were better than their word and did a lot to improve the building, also flying in special decorations for the Christmas season. The canteen swarmed with men at all hours of the day. At Christmas the girls were constantly serenaded by hilarious groups until the canteen staff was “nearly round the bend” with lack of sleep.
At the end of the month the W.A.S.(B.) staff provided teas for a thousand people who attended motor-bike trials arranged by the Army. The track in front of the canteen featured the most terrific hazards, but there were no serious accidents and the “casualties” immediately made for the Wasbie tent and revived themselves with tea. The troops and airmen expressed their opinion on the canteen in the name they gave it – “The Cat’s Whiskers.”
At Akyab and Ramree
It is impossible in this record to give detailed accounts of each of the canteens which accompanied the fighting units throughout the Burma campaign. A brief account of two or three teams must tell the story for them all, for the canteen which opened at Shwebo went into shattered Mandalay and finally on to Toungoo for others who leap-frogged from airstrip to airstrip and both static and mobile units which, in the aggregate wrote the place names of nearly every district of Burma into their reports.
There were headlines for the major military moves but these were paralleled and closely linked with strategic southward thrusts from Chittagong to Akyab and Ramree. When the troops went into the later two places, Wasbie canteens followed immediately the initial landing operations were completed. British and Indian forces landed at Akyab on January 3rd 1945, after pushing down the coast road from Maungdaw. The W.A.S.(B.) team arrived on February 17th, the move having been delayed because at that time it was needed to serve an African Division passing through Cox’s Bazaar on its way to India from Arakan. A month later a second Wasbie canteen opened as a static unit at Akyab. The town was a mass of wreckage, for it had long been a target for British bombers and only a few buildings remained in the area. The Wasbie mess had been the headquarters of a Japanese signal unit and it lay behind the main airstrip. From it the girls could look out over the harbour, cluttered with the rusting hulls of ships sunk during earlier operations.
The selection of this house for the Wasbis team has a story of its own. Mrs Taylor had arrived at Akyab twenty-four hours after the town was captured to make preliminary arrangements for the establishment of a canteen. The plane in which she travelled was of a type not unlike a Japanese machine and the previous day a similar one had been mistaken for an enemy raider by British gunners at Akyab. To avoid a repetition of this error the pilot of the aircraft in which Mrs Taylor was a passenger put down the undercarriage when about ten miles from Akyab and slipped in flying very low, both pilot and passenger holding their breath as the plane came within range of the anti-aircraft guns.
Then, later, after having made a close inspection of the few houses available Mrs Taylor was informed by a military guard that the area was closed as most of the buildings had been mined by the Japanese. It was her lucky day, for she had been through the entire district and into most of the houses.
Practically all Akyab buildings were of teakwood and the Japanese had stripped those which had escaped damage, using the heavy timber for deep air-raid shelters. They had put a lot of work into these shelters and the British bombers saw that the enemy spent a lot of time in them. A framework of teak beams was reinforced by four feet of concrete and above that were piled great masses of rubble with the structure also equipped with an outer room and blast passage. After two or three Japanese raids, however, with several hours underground, the Wasbies decided it was too much like a tomb and though there were no ghosts, their hair literally stood on end from the terrific blast when explosions occurred nearby. They left the shelter to the native servants and instead took cover in the slit trenches.
Life was never dull in the teakwood house by the airstrip, for the Japanese pilots used it as a landmark and bombs aimed at the airfield often dropped uncomfortably close to the W.A.S.(B.) mess. Even more alarming was the proximity of huge ammunition dumps being built up by the British for later operations.
For the Wasbies, Akyab had its own troubles. The heavily-loaded mobile unit on its way down the coast became stuck in a salt water Chaung, then slipped into deep water and sank. It was eventually salvaged but most of the stores were ruined and there was a long delay before the workshops could get the engine operating again.
The long grass around the W.A.S.(B.) compound hide piles of unexploded Japanese ammunition and two days after the girls arrived a grass fire swept towards the mess. Dry grass, ammunition and a tinder-dry wooden house represented a good hazard, but a fire-fighting group from a nearby naval billet arrived just in time to save the house and compound. Grass fires were common through-out the town, the danger arising not so much from the fires themselves but from the unexploded ammunition and the existence of large explosive dumps.
Akyab seethed with activity, troops and supplies being rushed into the area in a race against the monsoon. Convoys were constantly on the move up and down the coast road. 25 Indian Division, after taking Akyab, were fighting on the mainland in the region of Myebon and the Wasbie canteen served these men, in addition to the Commandos anti-aircraft gunners and dock workers. Such odd jobs as scrubbing out the mess quarters and making the place habitable after the occupancy of the Japanese, had to be fitted in between canteen duties and often there was no such thing as a good night’s rest for the girls as the Japanese made frequent raids on the town, probably well aware that it was being built up as a major military base. It was a tempting target, for supplies were coming in so fast that there was no time to camouflage the dumps and everything was stacked in huge piles in the open. Many of the bomb dumps, some of 250 pounders, looked in moonlight not unlike the innumerable pagodas in that area. Luckily, however, the Japanese pilots failed to register a hit on these dumps, though they were constantly over the area.
The Wasbies quickly learned the trick of scrambling out of bed and into slip trenches and often as they ran the bombs were already exploding nearby. Often the planes were flying so low over the house that the girls could see the lights in the planes as the bomb doors opened. Every raid launched a deafening symphony of gunfire, opening with light anti-aircraft fire, followed by the pom-poms of the naval vessels in the harbour and above all this, the heavy booming of the bigger guns. When a raid occurred early in the evening the first job was to put out the hurricane lamps. Speed in doing so was essential, for even a flicker of a light could being a hail of machine-gun bullets from a passing plane. At one army mess no one was around to extinguish the lamps when the Japanese came over and the occupants returned later to find the building riddled with machine-gun fire.
Firing was so intense during these raids that fatigue parties were always sent out to clear the shrapnel from the roads after a night attack and often the ground was pinpointed with unexploded anti-personnel bombs which because of their red and yellow fins, were much prized as souvenirs by the Indian troops.
The routine of canteen work at Akyab was much the same as at other centres, but in the last week of their stay in the area the Wasbies were called upon for a special job. This was to establish and run a canteen and club for the paratroops brought from Indian for the Rangoon operation. The job was very “hush hush!” None of the men were allowed out of their special camp area and the Wasbies task was to help them fill in time until the unit was ready to move out. The girls set up their canteen under the shade of huge trees in the centre of the camp, an outdoor club with easy chairs, coloured cloths on low tables and flowers and magazines, to give the place a touch of home. A gramophone and all the available records from the W.A.S.(B.) mess provided the troops with music and they immediately selected as their theme song a nonsensical record entitled “Wild, Wild Women.”
The men were obviously under considerable nervous tension when they arrived, for it was expected that Rangoon would prove a strongly defended objective. But in the easy atmosphere of the canteen they relaxed and were soon such good friends with the girls that they were begging Wasbie chinthe badges as good luck charms. And when the day came for the paratroopers to climb aboard their planes, the Wasbies were there to see them off and later, when the report came through that the landing had been practically unopposed, none greeted the good news with greater thankfulness than the girls who had helped them while away the last few days of anxious preparation.
It was then early May, the monsoon ceased most of the military operations at Akyab and the Wasbie teams were withdrawn to serve in other areas. Four of the girls undertook the task of packing up the canteen stores and flying with them to Chittagong. Stores on this trip included two hens, who regularly supplied the mess with fresh eggs. They had originally been issued as Army rations, then, miserable birds which one of the girls, with a weakness for pets, decided to nurse them back to health rather than hand them over to the cook. The hens, either by accident or foresight, started laying just as they were prime for the table and were immediately far too valuable to serve up on a dish. So when the move to Chittagong was ordered, the hens were crated and taken to the airfield along with the rest of the gear. There a grave discussion on the weather prospects was suddenly interrupted by a loud cackling. One of the hens had laid an egg. The American crew of the Dakota put the hens and the egg aboard with the canteen stores and equipment and when on the trip over the boys pleaded for a souvenir, the Wasbies marked their names on the egg with lipstick and handed it over.
The Akyab landing was immediately followed by the capture of Ramree Island, carried through by 26 Indian Division of 15 Corps. Two W.A.S.(B.) teams were assigned to the Ramree zone and here again they had a very special job. The original plans for the attack on Rangoon, with Ramree as a jumping off point for the main landing force, were to have been carried out by units from the European zone. However, their release for the Burma campaign was delayed and the Rangoon operation had to be taken over by men already in the East. Time, the dominating factor in the drive to clear the Japanese from Rangoon, was limited, for the monsoon was about to break and the whole success of the Burma campaign lay in the seizure of that port before the rains started.
The units assembled at Ramree had twice been promised leave in Britain and on each occasion their leave had had to be postponed. The few men who drifted into the W.A.S.(B.) canteen when it first opened were obviously at odds with the world, sitting hunched in the chairs and rebuffing all attempts at conversation. But it wasn’t easy to maintain a grouch in the comfortable homelike atmosphere of the canteen, for the girls had done an extra special job in making it attractive. The men came from their camps to find a team of cheerful but hard-working Wasbies on the job serving tea and sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes, with dartboards and other recreation equipment waiting for them at the canteen. The Wasbies also helped to organise whist drives, community singing, tombola and quiz sessions and the men enjoyed nothing so much a tripping up the girls on a tough question.
Within a matter of days the canteen was so crowded that a tent had to be erected to accommodate the overflow and dances were staged every night on the grass outside. For partners, the crowd of about two hundred men had four Wasbies who had spent long hours at canteen work but in spite of these factors the dances were a great success.
The mobile canteen operated along the beaches where the men were being trained for the Rangoon landing and the Wasbie team also loaded supplies aboard small naval craft and ducks to serve gunners and Marines stationed along the creeks and near the mangrove swamps.
It was at Ramree that a canteen unit narrowly escaped being blown up by a landmine planted in the sand by the Japanese. Most of the beach area was firm enough to carry even the heaviest vehicles but there were a few soft spots which could prove difficult. The girls were just moving off one day when an officer from a nearby unit suggested that instead of taking the heavy mobile van they should use one of his lighter trucks The run was made without incident, but the next day a heavy Army truck, parked at the very spot where the Wasbies had stopped to serve the beach units, became bogged in the sand. Another vehicle was brought up to tow it out and the vibration of the two trucks set off a hidden landmine. Several men were killed and others wounded, There were many casualties from such mines during the Ramree operations.
On another occasion a heavy bomb rolled to within thirty feet of a W.A.S.(B.) Area Commander while waiting at an airstrip. A plane had returned from a raid with a bomb hanging on the machine and unaware of this the pilot landed on the steel matting strip. Fortunately the bomb failed to explode as it broke away from the plane and spun towards the spot where the Wasbie was standing. A few minutes later a worried young airman arrived in a jeep, exclaiming anxiously “I say, has anyone seen a loose bomb round here?”
When the main force sailed for Rangoon the W.A.S.(B.) teams were temporarily moved to the neighbourhood of a medical unit as there were still many fugitive Japanese on the island and with the bulk of the troops gone the original Wasbie mess quarters were too isolated. One team left the area shortly afterwards to open up elsewhere and the second unit remained on the island to serve troops who were to have gone to Rangoon as reinforcements but who were not needed because of the unopposed landing. Living conditions were far from pleasant, the monsoon blanketing the island in rain and bogging down all traffic in deep mud. All activity was now centred in lower Burma where the Japanese were putting up the last attempt at organised fighting. W.A.S.(B.) canteens fanned out from Rangoon with that point serving as the main supply base and headquarters.
Back again in Rangoon
W.A.S.(B.) teams were in Rangoon early in May 1945 and immediately set about the establishment of canteens. Their first big job was to take over the catering at the Boat Club, a big recreation centre directed by Army Amenities authorities. About twelve hundred men visited the club daily and the catering was no small job. Piles of sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes disappeared as soon as they were placed n the canteen counters and the average daily sale of tea was around eighty gallons. Everyone worked non-stop to cope with the crowds which packed the canteen, the job starting with the ordering of supplies, continuing on to the supervision of the native kitchen staff, the handling of accounts and the counter work at the canteen. Another Rangoon canteen was opened at the swimming pool where the troops spent much of their spare time. A very attractive tea-room was opened overlooking the pool and another section nearby handled the sale of canteen goods. The Wasbie team enjoying the luxury of a much wider range of supplies than was usually available, put on a very fine variety of foodstuffs and won particular fame for their sausage rolls.
Later the Wasbies staffed a forth canteen at 12th Army Headquarters and worked with the Army Amenities officials in helping to run dances, whist drives and other entertainments for the troops. At this time twenty girls were enrolled, who proved very valuable, efficient and enthusiastic workers for the unit.
Meanwhile to the north along the banks of the Sittang river, where the demoralised Japanese forces were attempting to escape into the Moulmein area, the canteens which had accompanied the various Divisions on the drive from north Burma, were working among troops engaged in clearing out the milling masses of enemy forces. The monsoon was in full swing. British and Indian patrols had to wade waist and sometimes shoulder deep through the flooded paddy fields, the unceasing rains turned both camp-sites and roads into quagmires and living conditions were at their worst. Supplies had to come from Rangoon along roads flanked by country where enemy snipers were still operating and although victory in Burma was assured, heavy fighting was still in progress. The Wasbie canteens were as busy as ever and the need for them had in no way diminished. They were still operating as far north as Mandalay, Meiktila and Myingyan, also at Prome, Tharrawaddy, Pyinmana, Pegu and at other points in central Burma. Then when the Japanese nation surrendered, British prisoners of war and internees from Thailand were flown into Burma and a Wasbie canteen was set up at Hmawbi airstrip to provide the men with a light meal before they moved on to the special P.O.W. hospitals in Rangoon. Very special care was given to the setting up of this canteen. There were bright curtains at the windows, coloured table cloths, vases of flowers and piles of English newspapers and magazines. Many of the troops stationed in that area brought in their home-town papers, explaining that they did so “just in case there are some lads from our district among the arrivals.”
Immediately they arrived the ex-prisoners streamed out of the planes into the canteen, some too overcome with joy and relief, after years of hardship and privation, to speak, and other talking non-stop to hid their emotions. Everything they saw or touched delighted them. They were wearing their “best clothes” hoarded for years against their home-coming, a pathetic array of patched shorts, ragged shirts and boots made of rope, plaited grass or strips of bark tied together with string. Some even wore shapeless straw hats fashioned from reeds, but many had managed, despite Japanese vigilance to retain their regimental badges, stained and faded patches of cloth proudly stitched to what was left of their clothes.
The Wasbie team gave the men a choice of thick Scotch broth, tea, fruit salad, custard and buns and great piles of cigarettes were ready for everyone arriving at the canteen. The Army had provided rain capes and canvas shoes for the trip to hospital and the men swooped on these with as much delight as though they had been offered the finest possible outfit of clothes. It was the first time for years that they had been issued with any type of wearing apparel and their delight was boundless. Each group left behind rows of tattered foot-gear, evidence of the grim conditions under which the Japanese had forced the men to work and live.
About 400 men arrived at the airstrip every day until the Thailand camps had been cleared and then a new Wasbie canteen was opened at Insein, where ex-prisoners, not in need of medical care, rested until their passage could be arranged to Britain. Here for the first time the Wasbies could draw on unlimited supplies for all regular Army issues to the troops had been cut to make this possible. And enormous stocks were needed, for most of the ex-prisoners got their chief pleasure from stocking up with goods they had not even seen since they were first taken prisoner. Sales on one day totalled 14,800 rupees, mostly covering cigarettes, soap, stationery, sweets and all kinds of foodstuffs. After their long period of semi-starvation, it seemed that they could never get enough to eat and filled in the hours between means drinking tea and eating sandwiches and cakes. But they wanted more than food, for they had come back to a world which had completely changed during their prisoner-of-war years. They gazed in astonishment at jeeps, ducks and new types of aircraft and the whole range of modern military equipment developed since the early months of the war. They had never even heard of penicillin, of D.D.T. or airstrips equipped with steel matting runways and even the terms “A.L.F.S.E.A. and “S.E.A.C.” had to be explained to them. One ex-prisoner, after listening to a casual conversation asked “do I look as if my head is going round and round, it feels that way, for I don’t know anything about this world now.” And they were all desperately eager for assurance that they were still like other people and did not appear odd or unusual. The Wasbies helped them regain their confidence by telling them that they mistook members of the camp staff for ex-P.O.W.’s and vice versa, as happened quite often at the canteen.Some were keen to know the latest fashions in women’s clothes and hair styles, often showing the girls photographs of their wives and asking if the hair styles shown were still in fashion. The men were also anxious to check on the truth or falsehood of scraps of news given them by the Japanese and to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of the war. The canteen became an information bureau. With even the most casual conversations punctuated with a score of questions.
More than a thousand men a day came to the Wasbie canteen. Sandwich cutting and cake baking started in the early hours of the morning and continued until ten o’clock at night. With the W.A.S.(B.) staff worked B.O.R. volunteers and at Rangoon other Wasbie teams took supplies to ex-P.O.W.’s in hospital. As many of the men as possible were entertained at the W.A.S.(B.) messes and others were taken on jeep tours of the city.
Then, as they embarked for Home, the dock canteen saw that they got all the supplies they wanted before going on board their ships, so that for many of these men their first and last contact with Burma after release from prison camps was at the chinthe sign canteens. The girls also served civilian internees passing through Rangoon – men, women and children, still bewildered by their freedom and sudden relief from fear and want. Children born in captivity stuffed themselves with sausage rolls and cakes to the concern of the canteen staff, but when it was suggested that perhaps this might not be good for them, the mothers merely smiled and replied “but they like sausage rolls and cakes, besides they’re used to eating anything.”
Thefts of canteen stores and equipment were by no means unusual in any part of Burma and securing a burglar-proof storeroom was a number one job whenever a canteen changed location. At the Rangoon docks however, looters smashed the locks six nights in succession and got away with about 5,000 rupees worth of stores. Routine reports to the authorities after each raid failed to produce results, so finally, the W.A.S.(B.) officer in charge of the canteen side-steeped red tape and gave a detailed personal report to the Brigadier in charge of the docks area. The canteen was scheduled to open at 6 a.m. next morning and when the girls approached the docks they found it surrounded by troops in full battle kit with machine-gun posts at every road intersection. A big raid for looters was in progress. Eighty-six Burmese and Chinese found with canteen goods in their possession were arrested. There were no more thefts from the canteen.
Rangoon offered many problems when the Wasbies first arrived, for looters had stripped the city of everything of value. Messes were established in empty houses, where even the fittings had been torn from the walls. There was the usual job of scrubbing and scouring before camp beds were set up and acquisition of the simplest type of furniture was an achievement.
With the war over, the function of the W.A.S.(B.) organisation resolved into mainly one of relieving boredom among troops still needed in Burma. There were still many tasks for the military forces. Thousands of Japanese prisoners had to be organised into camps, transport facilities re-opened, docks cleared and scores of other jobs carried through before control could be handed back to the civil authorities. All this was essential work, but the war was over and the predominant thought in the minds of the troops was the desire to get back Home as quickly as possible.
W.A.S.(B.) canteens set about this new task with considerable expansion as regards the territory covered, for a canteen was sent to the Andaman Islands and later, others to Java and Sumatra. Four teams were allocated for service in Japan with Brindiv. B.C.O.F. going first to Nasik in India, where the Force was assembled and sailing for Kure, Japan on March 6th 1946.Recruits from Australia arrived in Burma just before the end of the war and these girls filled the gaps left by Wasbies terminating their service to rejoin husbands and families. Most of these new recruits had been evacuated from the Far East to Australia when Japan first entered the war. Those who joined the W.A.S.(B.) organisation during the first four years were practically all residents of Burma or India in the pre-war period so that the veteran group and the new members, some of whom had been formerly interned in Japanese camps and recruited in Australia, all had close ties with the Far East. This was of immense value in organising and operating canteens. It obviated language difficulties in dealing with Indian troops and also with native staffs attached to the canteens. Problems associated with the varying climatic conditions could be anticipated and this previous experience of the Far East enabled the Wasbies to fit quickly and easily into whatever area they were sent.
As linguists the Wasbies probably held something of a record. One group of twelve between them spoke nine languages, including several Indian dialects, Japanese, Malayan, Siamese, Cantonese, French and other European languages.
Many of the Wasbies were married to men in the forces, most of them had lost close relatives in the fighting. Others had members of their families in Japanese prisoner-of-war and internment camps and most of the Wasbies who had previously lived in Burma had lost all of their personal possessions in the retreat of 1942 and subsequent campaigns. Two Wasbies were killed in transport accidents in Burma. A third was seriously injured in a plane crash while on duty and for her pluck in tending the survivors until help came she was mentioned in despatches.
Early Post-war Days
Now for a few glimpses of the post-war canteens in Burma. The Mandalay unit was located in an attractive little basha in the grounds of the old Fort and whenever sufficient stores were available a mobile van served units with a thirty mile radius of the town. When the basha was built one of the Wasbies persuaded the military authorities then in charge of captured Japanese vehicles and equipment to leave two enemy tanks and an armoured car as souvenirs outside the canteen, It was a happy thought for the troops never seemed to tire of exploring them, discussing their construction and getting themselves photographed with the tanks as a background. The canteen served British, Indian and African troops in the Mandalay area and also catered for men passing through Mandalay to and from the rest camps at Maymyo.
Myingyan was a much bigger centre and the W.A.S.(B.) canteen was one of the few bright spots in a particularly dreary region. The town had been completely smashed in the heavy fighting around that district and the Wasbie team did much to help relieve the monotony by arranging dances and other entertainments as well as the normal canteen work. Their 1945 Christmas party was a most successful venture, the troops voting it one of the best Christmases they had ever had.
Another canteen started at Pyinmana in September 1945 and the troops packed the place from the day it opened. The building was located on a hilltop and the nightly overflow of customers perched themselves on the grassy slopes around the canteen. Scarcity of cutlery at first threatened to wreck the girls plan for serving light suppers but this difficulty was overcome by serving fried eggs on biscuits. Queues lined up every evening for this “Pyinmana Special.”
At Pegu another very drab area, the Wasbies put on fish-and-chip suppers at the "Dumbo Inn" canteen as well as the customary tea, cake and sandwich service.
Teams also opened at various times in Prome. Tharrawaddy, Meiktila, Kalaw and Taunggyi.
Three canteens were opened in the Moulmein area, one at Thaton, another in Moulmein itself and a third at Amherst. A big two-storey timber house was taken over at Thaton, the ground floor serving as the canteen and the upper section as living quarters for the girls. With its weathered brown walls and attractive garden, the Thaton centre had a very close resemblance to an old English inn. The canteen section was divided into with big rooms, one with a refreshment bar big enough to serve about thirty men and the other as a tea and recreation room. Tables and benches were made of bamboo and odd bits of timber by Japanese assigned to the canteen for general duties. And since the canteen was not large enough to accommodate all the troops, two large tents were set up outside, equipped with deck chairs and tables. Curtains and table cloths were made from coloured parachutes and the place was so popular that a strict rationing system had to be maintained to cope with the crowds which thronged the place every day.
Several different kinds of sandwiches and cakes were supplemented by a very special type of yeast bun and in addition to fruit salads, the Thaton girls had successfully experimented in making milk shakes. This canteen also ran a mobile van which covered units stationed out towards the Siam border, a mountainous area not entirely free from dacoit activities. Many of the trips were two-day runs and were always made with an armed escort. Supplies came mainly from Moulmein, with some from the Thaton depots and particular care had to be taken in handling the vehicles on the steep roads and ferries throughout these areas.
The Wasbies at Moulmein worked at the Army Club known as the Black Cat and served as a central supply and administrative point for the Thaton and Amherst canteens. A mobile unit was also available for scattered units and troops passing through the port. A very useful job of work was done at the 1945 Christmas party given by the military to the Burmese and Indian children and as at other places, the Wasbies there were always on hand to look after the catering at sports meetings or other entertainments staged by the various units.
The Amherst canteen was located near the beach and served troops at the Rest Camp set up there. This was also a most attractive place, a trim two storey house with timbered ceilings and a wide shady veranda. Tables and chairs were set up every day under the trees outside the canteen and the girls also ran a library for the troops. The team very successfully introduced a holiday atmosphere about the canteen and the troops divided their days at Amherst between swimming at high tide and reading or yarning at the W.A.S.(B.) canteen.
In January 1945, the Wasbie canteen at Tharrawaddy was transferred to Gyobyu when the 82nd West African Division moved to that area. A static canteen was operated for about seven hundred British N.C.O.s of the Headquarters unit and mobile trips supplied the African with stores. Many amusing stories could be told about this canteen, for even by Wasbie standards it had a unique setting. The Gyobyu camp was literally carved out of thick jungle extending back from the main reservoir of the Rangoon water supply system. It had no local population, neither, Indian nor Burmese and the only people in the area were the West African forces. Again it was a case of renewing old contacts, for the 82nd West African Division had first met W.A.S.(B.) teams in Arakan and later in various parts of Burma. But this time even the canteen native staff was comprised exclusively of West Africans, men from the Gold Coast or Nigeria, with an amusing pidgin English of their own. Some of them had taken the days of the week for names and others had apparently been named after Biblical characters. One very dusky lad was known as Celeste. The house boy at the Wasbie mess wore correct regimental uniform when serving dinner, white trousers, red sleeved jacket, red waistcoat finished with yellow braid and a red fez perched on top of his head. Most of these Africans had the scars of tribal markings on their faces and many had had their teeth filed after the custom of African cannibals.Everywhere in Burma the African troops had astonished the Wasbies by their very odd tastes in food. Bottles of hair cream were poured on to rations and eaten like a salad dressing. Some bought lemon cordial and drank it full strength, a bottle at a time. They also had a fondness for aspirin tablets and whenever a snake was killed around the camp it went straight into the cooking pots.
The Gyobyu area is a government reserve for big game and though the girls saw none of the tigers reputed to roam that territory, they did get a scare one night from a “big fish” splashing in the lake a few yards from their basha huts. They laughed at the incident next morning but it seemed far from a laughing matter in the middle of the night. The splashing awakened each of the girls and two of them went to the water’s edge to investigate. They decided it must be an awfully big fish to make such a noise. Perhaps it wasn’t a fish, they reasoned, but a crocodile, though nobody at Gyobyu had ever mentioned crocodiles. The African guard came over to see what “Missus and Missie” were doing out of their huts, “do you think it could be a crocodile?” they asked, quite convinced that they would receive a reassuring denial. But, instead, a big grin spread over the black face. “Yes, I t’ink maybe a crocodile,” he agreed cheerfully. “I shoot him when he come out.” “Well, you stay right here all night and wait for him,” replied the girls as they hurried back to bed. But before they fell asleep one of them unluckily remembered that crocodiles sometimes took strolls overland and might slip past the guard up to the huts. So they piled tin trunks and furniture where the doors would have been if they had had doors and feeling happier with this barricade finally went to sleep.
In the morning their sense of humour returned and they saw the incident as a big joke. Somebody had obviously been breaking the rule against swimming in the lake and their “crocodile” was most probably a two legged fish.
The W.A.S.(B.) team sent to the Andaman Islands opened a canteen for the troops engaged in disarming and guarding the Japanese and also for men of the Royal Navy operating around the islands. They left Rangoon the latter part of 1945 and were stationed there until the following February when the military forces completed their task and the canteen was no longer needed.
The Lighter Side of Wasbie Life
There are many small sidelights on the work of the W.A.S.(B.) teams which are too detailed to be included in the general survey of the various canteens but they give such an insight into the back ground and atmosphere of W.A.S.(B.) life that a record would be incomplete without at least a selection of these incidents. Here are a few some culled from the routine reports submitted each month by various canteens and others gleaned from casual conversations in the Wasbie messes.
On the trek from Jorhat in March 1945, the W.A.S.(B.) unit moved in convoy, slow, dusty journeys which often continued for twelve hours between camp-sites. It was after one long, tedious day moving through teak wood forests and clouds of dust that the Wasbies decided a bath was essential. So a bathroom was improvised by draping mosquito nets around four conveniently places trees as soon as it was dark. The idea worked well and bathing was in full progress when suddenly a truck swung towards the camp with its headlights unwittingly full on the bathroom. It was a case of “lights out gentlemen,” and a temporary deviation of all traffic from the area. Wasbie tents were rigged from parachutes when the canteens were attached to Divisions depending on air-borne supplies and the parachutes also had many other uses, such as screening the outdoor plumbing. But the Burmese villagers who found parachutes useful and if one was conveniently at hand, then why look for others? One night a Wasbie noticed an unusual draught in the “penny house.” She discovered that the Burmese had cut a couple of square yards from the back of the parachute.
Shortages were unavoidable in the canteens, for, despite the fine co-operation of Canteen Services (India) there were always transport difficulties. But a touch of humour often made the inevitable rationing less grim and even a queue of dour Scotsmen were made to laugh when a Wasbie (who happened to be afflicted with a stutter) announced “one b-blade p-per chin, t-two if you have a double chin.” Versatility was a great asset. One of a team of Wasbies helping to run a Christmas picnic for the troops made her contribution by telling fortunes, spending two and a half hours in a stiffling tent smothered in the appropriate gypsy garb. With another Wasbie outside to attract “clients” and the fortune-teller gifted with the true Irish blarney, the tent was one of the most popular features of the picnic. On all occasions the Wasbies were present at B.O.R. dances and organised various entertainments during the campaign.
Baby shows are not usually associated with armies in battle areas but when 36 Division was driving down through Burma they spent one of their rare rest days at such a show. The Wasbie Area Commander in charge of the canteens attached to the Division acted as one of the judges, the photographs of babies entered in the competition were produced by proud fathers.
Work amongst Indian troops also had its humorous side, such as when a complaint was made that the cake on sale in the canteen was stale. “Quite fresh,” said the Wasbie, “baked this morning.” “No, no,” said the Naik, waving a piece to emphasize his scorn, “not made this morning, was made to-morrow!”
The war in Burma rarely had anything like a fixed battle line and often Japanese patrols slipped into what was nominally Allied territory. News of such penetrations sometimes came through to Divisional Headquarters after the W.A.S.(B.) canteen had started on its itinerary and then, as one G.O.C. remarked, there was the mobile van lightheartedly trundling along the very road on which the Japanese were operating. But the canteens seemed to have a charmed life in so far as enemy action was concerned. In October 1945, the mobile van at Toungoo visited a unit stationed on a tea estate, travelling along a road where just a couple of hours previously seven Japanese snipers had been killed. It was known that Japanese were still in the area, therefore when the girls went out to units on the estate they were accompanied by two jeeps full of B.O.R.’s who dashed into fox holes with Bren guns at the ready every time the party stopped. This was no stage play, as two days later twenty Japanese attacked the tea factory firing through the windows.
Chaungs, river crossings and bad roads were the biggest hazards for the canteen vehicles and ferries were a constant menace, the approaches often being soft and the ferries very narrow. Several of the vehicles slipped off narrow roads into flooded paddy fields, there were accidents in convoy, locks were smashed and stores stolen, replacement difficulties were sometimes solved by visits to vehicle salvage dumps and even abandoned Japanese vehicles yielded useful parts for the W.A.S.(B.) vans.
Kitchen supplies were always a problem, often becoming mouldy. Cooking fats gave off suspicious odours, syrup had to be substituted for sugar, the lids of tin cases had to serve as baking dishes, but somehow cakes, buns and the ever popular fudge, which took the place of unavailable sweets and chocolate, were produced. During the Christmas season the Wasbies excelled themselves in the art of obtaining supplies for B.O.R. and Indian Christmas dinners. At Myingyan, for instance, the Christmas menu included cheese toast, chicken and goose, vegetable and potato salad, mince pies, fruit salad and custard, jellies, assorted cakes and sandwiches, just in case anyone was still hungry. For the Indian troops there were special dishes of Indian sweetmeats and their favourite type of slab cake.
For the troops and the girls, red-letter days in the canteens were those when supplies were reasonably good and it was possible to say “how about a tin of this or a few of these?” instead of the usual story “sorry, but it is one between ten this week.” The Wasbie ingenuity in getting stores was something which had to be seen to be believed, for they developed a genius for getting to know where odd lots of supplies might be obtained and they also established invaluable contacts for getting transport space when finally stores had been located. The Americans were most helpful in this direction and would often squeeze a few extra cases onto their big freight planes.
At Wasbie H.Q. all future moves were arranged. The H.Q. Staff moved from pillar to post with A.L.F.S.E.A. H.Q., and dealt with the multiple details of organisation.
Throughout the second Burma campaign the Wasbies slept and lived in tents and it was only in the later stages that they were allotted houses formerly used by Japanese. Often they were no sooner settled than another move was ordered and the job of cleaning had to be done all over again at the next halt.
Soon after the Wasbies arrived in Rangoon they were ordered to take part in a Victory Parade. Much agitation ensued as they had never appeared in a parade, knew little about the drill and owing to the fact that they had been living under active service conditions for many months, their uniform was not exactly smart. A fool-proof drill, by which they got themselves into three lines with the minimum of fuss, was evolved – an important consideration with the eyes of all the troops on parade upon them. They were busy practising this on the parade ground when up drove a fleet of jeeps and to their horror out got Supremo, who had also come to practise, accompanied by the C.-in-C. Alfsea and other senior officers!
On the day of the parade all went well and they were preening themselves that they really must look rather smart, when just as Supremo mounted the dais and began his address, down came the monsoon rain. For at least half-an-hour the girls stood to attention while their dresses clung to them clammily, their hair hung lankly and worst of all, the dye from their new berets ran in blue streaks down their faces and necks! Perhaps it should have consoled them that a B.O.R. on parade was heard to remark “the girls look more appealing when they’re wet!”
The Wasbies learned to take these things in their stride and the saving grace was that they never lost their sense of humour. This was one of the main things which won them the respect and admiration of the men they served. This faculty saw them through many tough spots and enabled them to find fun even in the most dreary and difficult days.
Mrs N. Taylor,
The Asst. Commandant
with new recruits
Major-General Cowan talking to W.A.S.(B.)s travelling to serve the troops disarming Japan
"Love to Elsa (Dickson) from all the boys downstairs, we think you are a honey"
- a photo of appreciation
Muriel Gundry, Pat Wellington, Ann Cook, Phyllis Jeffries &
A few of the above photos are from a magazine entitled "Chinthe Women" researched and edited by Sally and Lucy Jaffe
Oct. 1946 - re-union in London
Photo left:- Mrs Ninian Taylor (centre) Chief Commander of the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) holding a green apron sewn onto which are the Divisional and Corps Badges to which the W.A.S.(B.) was attached.
Left to right Mrs Morton, Mrs Bankes, Mrs Bruce Scott, Mrs Taylor, Mrs Pilbrow,
Mrs St. John, 2nd in Command to Mrs Taylor, and Mrs Tucker.
If you can name any of the ladies in the photo on the right, please contact us.