Some Recollections Of Colour Sergeant Tommy Atkins
21 Column on the march
The 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment formed part of 16 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, and, unlike the other brigades in the Division, we walked the whole way - some 550 miles - to our area of operations around Indaw. The men and the mules were very heavily laden, and the going over steep jungle-covered hills was atrocious.
At the end of the day's march, as darkness fell, we would just stay on the spot we had actually reached and try to find a flat spot to lie down and get some sleep. Only there weren't any flat areas. The ground was very wet and it was almost impossible to light a fire to get a warm brew going.
One incident of light relief I remember well. We were resting on the far bank of the River Chindwin when two men appeared walking along the river bank. One was attired only with a towel around his middle and a battered bush hat, with a fearsome-looking beard and a monocle in his eye. This was, of course, our Brigadier. The other man was dressed in a crumpled suit of khaki drill with an old topee well down on his head, and this was our Chindit Commander, General Wingate. I couldn't help thinking: Blimey! That is the top brass responsible for all our doings! I wonder what the more conventionally dressed brass hats of the European theatre of war would say if they could see them.
Supply by air
The Reconnaissance Platoon, always well ahead of the main column, would be responsible for selecting a suitable area for a supply drop. It had to be reasonably free from any high hills and fairly open to allow the aircraft some degree of safety during the supply drop. Except for the early days, the supply drop always took place at night.
On reaching the selected rendezvous, the column would first set up defensive positions and then establish a line of bonfires in the shape of the letter L. The RAF ground wireless crew would 'home in' the aircraft, and from then we were in the hands of the Royal Air Force or the American Air Force. Their accuracy was essential, but, good as they were, we could never be sure that we would receive the whole drop. Recovery parties would then go out and retrieve the chutes and containers.
Both the RAF and American Air-Force pilots were magnificent. Without them we would not have survived, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
The sick and wounded
The care of the sick and wounded was in the capable hands of Captain Harrison RAMC, who, I think, was the oldest man in the Column. As far as the sick were concerned he was always kind and considerate. There were times, however, when a very strong attitude had to be taken with some of those who through sheer- exhaustion had given up and sat down. At times like these, he did not hesitate to adopt a very positive attitude, always with the result that the exhausted chap would get to his feet and eventually make it to the end of the day, when again Captain Harrison would treat him with all the sympathy required. If he had not shown this strong will, there may well have been one or two chaps who would have given up and stayed where they were, until either they died or the Japs got them.
The journey out
Orders were eventually received for us to make our way back to the stronghold called 'Aberdeen'. We were all very tired and not in a fit state to get embroiled with any Japs on this return journey. Even the mules were very docile, and that is saying something! Instructions were then issued for 21 Column to make their way north to the stronghold called 'Broadway' -where we would eventually be flown out to India. The journey was about 50 to 60 miles over some pretty steep hills. Arriving at 'Broadway' some five days later, we were allocated to a rest area. We were told to help ourselves to anything we wanted from the central ration dump. Amongst the rations were fresh vegetables, tinned fruit and other luxuries. My goodness, did we tuck in!
We had covered something in the region of 550 miles with climbs taking us sometimes over 5000 feet. At times we moved through almost impenetrable jungle and crossed a 300 yard wide river. There were many irritants such as leeches, shortage of water, monotonous diet and, by no means least, walking hour after hour looking at the stern end of a mule.
My last impression of 'Broadway' was sitting on the air strip waiting for a Dakota to pick us up. We took off in the dark and some time later landed at Imphal, which was not at that time a nice place to be. During the day another Dakota took us to Comilla, our base in India. Here, at last safe and sound, we began to get civilised again. Shaving was re-introduced, and it was amazing how different a chap looked after he had lost his beard.
While at Comilla we were treated to a concert party, and there, present in front of us, was that lovely lady, Vera Lynn. We thoroughly enjoyed that concert. Vera was the first white lady we had seen for a very long time, so that of course made the occasion more sentimental.
Our travels concluded with a long train ride to Bangalore.