'Shillong And Back To Burma'
By Major A's C Hobrow MC
August 1944, saw the Battalion resting at Milestone 32 on the Dimapur-Kohima road. The effects of casualties, sickness and the gathering momentum of repatriation had deprived us of senior NCOs and men and officers. The Battalion was no longer a viable force.
Days were spent re-kitting and uneventfully, in routine duties. We were now under canvas. Everyone had to make their own entertainment. The CO, Lt. Col Graham Duncombe, produced a Ludo set from somewhere, and proceeded to educate some of the officers into the intricacies of his set of rules. The throwing of dice was accompanied by wild incantations, which must have sounded most. strange beyond the Mess tent. Many hilarious evenings were spent as a reaction to what had gone on before in more serious circumstances.
I was PMC at this time, and had recruited from somewhere, an Indian cook, who was very passable in turning normal rations of the inevitable bully beef into something more palatable. Whether it was the interminable games of Ludo, or the singing of songs, this same cook suddenly decided to rush into the Mess brandishing his meat cleaver. His eyes were wild and his manner ferocious. He had clear intentions of carving up everyone he could. Fortunately, we were all young and alert, and strong, and he was quickly overcome without doing damage.
On 31st August, a service was held to unveil the Battalion memorial built by the Pioneer Platoon on Jail Hill. This was a quite remarkable edifice made from salvaged materials, and was a fitting tribute to the Regiment's fallen. It stood the test of time, until the War Graves Commission were able to build a Kohima memorial for all units in 1972.
During this period Major Bob Strand, our only professional artist, a painted number of caricatures officers. These have remained of treasured possesions ever since.
The new four year tour of duty, instead of the six year term for Other Ranks and an indefinite one for officers, took off more men. So on the 6th September 1944, the Battalion was posted away from the Division to peacetime barracks at Shillong, the capital of Assam. To find ourselves comfortable and clean and at peace for the first time since November 1943, was an experience to be savoured. The Barracks was near the town, which was set in lovely countryside of pine-clad hills. The climate was perfect.
Lt Col Graham Duncombe, now awarded a well deserved DSO, left for Home, and Lt Col G S Grimston took over command. One after another senior officers also were repatriated, and replaced with newcomers. The object of the Shillong posting was to enable the Battalion to recuperate, retrain and reinforce. A mixture of elementary platoon and company training was carried out, but still no reinforcements came after weeks of waiting. Hockey matches against Indian teams improved our standards, even if it did nothing for the opposing teams. Bog-wheel polo, and horseless horse racing devised by Major A N Browning, 2I/C of the Battalion, together with sports events and football, helped to pass the time and keep us tolerably fit.
The weeks now turned into months and still no reinforcements. Even a pleasant station like Shillong began to pall.
At long last on the 6th March 1945, orders came for the Battalion to rejoin 7th Indian Division in Burma. Suddenly, Major John Terry, a pre-war Regular officer arrived, accompanied by some 80 Other Ranks who had been transferred from the Royal Navy and the RAP. These men came without benefit of Army training in an infantry unit, and must have felt shocked at this transition. However, they settled down and found they had feet like us all. Some became NCOs in due course and one eventually became a Colour Sergeant three months later!
We were destined now to rejoin our Brigade on the Chindwin River prior to the final advance down the Irrawaddy to Rangoon. The route back took us on trucks through to Kohima, and then on through the teak forests and on to our destination at Kalewa.
The road to Kohima was strewn with wrecked vehicles which had been driven too fast round the hairpin bends. Being in convoy the pace was slower. The heat of the truck in the sun made one drowsy, and it was all one could do to concentrate on the job of maintaining the momentum of the journey. Even the bucking, and bumping of the truck did not help to overcome the oppressive heat and the drone of the engines. The journey was accomplished by night sometimes, as well as by day. The distance covered was around 600 miles.
Sometime during this journey a further draft had been posted to the Battalion of some 200 men. Most were Welshmen, most from towns, all generally untrained, and some appeared never to have been out on a night exercise even. The Battalion now consisted of some 24 officers and 839 men.
The Battalion was not the same as had left Burma in September 1944. It now consisted of men from some 45 different units, a result of the effects of repatriation and consequent replacement, from a pool of reserves. The inexperience of NCOs in particular was alarming.
Training at every possible moment was done, but until the first enemy shells came over, reality had not been faced up to. It was amazing to see how quickly the lesson of digging in was taken to heart at this point.
On the 1st April the Battalion was back with 33 Indian Infantry Brigade now in very different country. The area was now in the central plains, a dry and semi-desert landscape, with few villages scattered around with their coconut groves and cultivation.
After the crossings of the Chindwin and then Irrawaddy Rivers, the Battalion was moved the forward to take the important crossroads at Gwegyo. Intelligence photographs shewed this a strong defensive position.
D Company, under my command, was detailed to make a long night approach and to take the high ground overlooking the village in a dawn attack. The remainder of the Battalion was to make its attack down the road at 0830 hrs the following morning.
The success of an operation of this nature depended on things going to plan, as it was an essential prerequisite that 0 Company be in possession of the high ground before the main attack went in.
The night march of a full company, accompanied by a platoon of Punjabis being guided to their neighbouring destination over very broken ground, up and down deep nullahs would have tested the most seasoned troops. 0 Company at this time had no experienced NCOs, a miscellany of untrained and inexperienced men, and accompanied by an Indian platoon with whom we could not adequately converse.
The slow painful long approach march at night by compass was arduous in the extreme, necessitating very frequent stops to check position and to listen for enemy movement. At one ideal spot for an ambush, suddenly there was a rush of men, and the two rear platoons appeared to be scattered in all directions. Firing broke out in which one of my NCOs was unfortunately killed.
Experience soon told me that this was not an enemy action. After regathering the company together, and establishing order, I discovered the cause of this unfortunate commotion. Two men of the last section in the column, had fallen asleep at the last stop. Suddenly waking up from this cat nap, they followed in the general direction of the march. They were spotted by the Punjabis, bringing up the rear of the column, who thinking, not unnaturally that a trap had been sprung on them, rushed for what cover there was. There was a chain reaction. I do know that from this moment on the company became more professional at their task, and soldiers learnt their craft from real events.
Gwegyo was reached and duly captured with little resistance as the bulk of the enemy had pulled out, and the Company objective of the high ground was reached in due time, and fortunately without opposition.
The remainder of April was spent in recapturing the Chauk and Yenanyaung oilfields in which the Battalion was engaged. Yenanyaung stays in my mind because of the capture of an old cast iron bath, which stood forlornly in the open. Once we were sure that the enemy had no further use for such an article, it was cleaned out and used for the purpose it 'Nas built, to the delight of all. Warmed water brought by bucket was a luxury not to be missed.
The remainder of April was spent in patrolling to prevent the escape of the Japs south. On one of these occasions the company was sent to an outlying village area where the Japs had been known to be using as an escape route. All was peaceful on our arrival, and we soon made friends of the villagers. The exchange of bully beef and tins of sardines, chocolate from K rations, and cigarettes brought forth a feast nearest to a Hollywood film of an Eastern banquet. Fresh chicken, rice and fruit were borne in by numbers of women and men and placed in front of us. We ate right royally. The only thing missing from the film set were the dancing girls.
This was my last engagement with the Battalion and I set off for Home just after the 1st May 1945, having completed my four years entirely with the Battalion.