Fast flows the Irrawaddy, on the “Road to Mandalay”

As the motor boat hauled its way against the flow of the Irrawaddy’s broad expanse, all eyes strained expectantly on the eastern bank. Bowed heads on the upper deck studied maps and photographs, some of which were relics of fighting sixty years ago. At last a shout went up: “There it is!” We had found the exact site – B4 beach – where on the early morning of 14 February 1945 two hundred men of 2nd Battalion South Lancashire Regiment had rowed silently across the river at Nyaungu to form the vanguard of the 7 Indian Division beachhead over the Japanese-held Irrawaddy. Further to the north at Myinmu elements of Major General Douglas Gracey’s 20 Indian Division had begun crossing two days earlier.

The Nyaungu crossings, sometimes better known by the name of the town on the western bank some miles to the north – Pakokku – were key to the success of General Bill Slim’s plans to thrust General Frank Messervy’s 4 Corps (7 and 17 Indian Divisions, together with 255 Indian Tank Brigade) across the Irrawaddy and to drive hard and unexpectedly into the vulnerable Japanese underbelly at Meiktila.

Finding B4 was a coup, as one of the party from the Burma Star Association, travelling on an expedition managed and masterminded by the Orient Express company, was Private ‘Manny’ Curtis, late of the South Lancashires, who had been amongst the first to arrive on that tiny beach in the early morning of 14 February 1945. Another accompanying veteran, Gunner Bert Wilkins, had been attached to the South Lancashires for the attack, firing 3” mortars in support of the infantry assault.

Now, sixty years later almost to the day, the chance for the boat gently to push against the bank and for Manny to lead a small party of veterans and friends on a scramble up the beach near to the positions he and his comrades had seized so long ago, evoked strong emotions and an unexpected and exciting photo opportunity. The first wave of the South Lancashires had managed to seize the high ground above B4 in the early morning of 14 February, but subsequent waves were mauled by Japanese machine gun fire as the leaky canvas boats and temperamental outboard motors failed to cope with the distance they had to cover and the strength of the river’s flow. Many of Manny’s battalion died that day, and now rest amongst the bougainvillea and jacaranda blooms in Taukkyan Cemetery, Rangoon.

From the left: Robert Lyman, Colonel James Evans, Captain Prahan, Dr John Beal

This special trip to Burma’s battlefields had been long in gestation, the result of months of hard work and planning by Orient Express’s John Hinchliffe, who runs the “Road to Mandalay” river cruise operation in the country. Some 43 veterans and friends travelled out from the UK to revisit the sites of the 1945 battles between General ‘Bill’ Slim’s 14th Army and the Japanese. The trip was a logistical operation of some magnitude, and conducted with bags of calm professionalism and military efficiency by an excellent in-country team. As Field Marshal von Moltke observed, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and ours proved to be no different. But when the “Road to Mandalay” encountered impossibly shallow water just short of Myinmu on the third day of the journey on the Irrawaddy, John’s team swung into action and the tour continued by road and fast boat with virtually no alteration to the schedule.

The trip began in the intense heart of the Burmese summer – temperatures hovering around 100° Fahrenheit – with a couple of days acclimatisation in Rangoon (now Yangon). Two of our number – Pam Buttle and Bill Prince – had been born in Rangoon. Bill’s family – his father was the Brigade Major of 13 Indian Division in the Shan States – escaped by plane from Shwebo in 1942, whilst Pam’s father had the foresight to evacuate his family to India on the day Pearl Harbour was attacked, 7 December 1941. By so doing he avoided the fate that befall so many who were less perspicacious, and who accepted the Governor General’s hollow assurances that all was well. The itinerary included a visit to the wonderfully kept Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries at Taukkyan and Yangon.

The botanical beauty of the cemeteries provided some relief to the sadness associated with the memories evoked by such places, as veterans, individually and in groups, sought out names of fallen friends and comrades. Taukkyan had also been the site of a desperate fight in late February 1942 as the Rangoon garrison, including General Harold Alexander, commander of the Burma Army, sought to escape the rapidly advancing Japanese for the relative safety of central Burma. Private David Daniels of the Burma Rifles, who had manned a mobile Bofors anti-aircraft gun in the earlier defence of Rangoon’s Mingaladon airfield, and who was now resident in Yangon, joined us for the visit to the cemetery. He had been involved in the fight at Taukkyan, as his Bofors unit joined the tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade in the successful attempt to break through the Japanese encirclement.

The short stay in Yangon was followed by a flight to Bagan, home to hundreds of pagodas and temples, many built as long ago as the 11th century, where the group settled comfortably into the delightful Tharabar Gate Hotel in Old Bagan for the night. Then, on Day 4, a major excursion was mounted to follow the tracks of 63 Indian Brigade on its journey sixty years before from the Nyaungu beachhead to Meiktila, through the village of Seiktein and the towns of Taungtha and Mahlaing. The journey itself took four hours but was made memorable by the commentary of Captain John Chiles, late of Probyn’s Horse, whose Sherman tanks had accompanied 1/10th Gurkhas and 7/10th Baluch in Major General ‘Punch’ Cowan’s 17 Indian Division blitzkrieg attack on the unsuspecting Japanese garrison at Meiktila. When asked what it was like to drive across the undulating, scrub covered terrain in a thirty ton tank, John replied: “Much like the bus we are in today!” John Hinchliffe’s magnificent logistics team had arranged a halfway stop at the village of Seiktein.

Far off the beaten track, the villagers rarely meet westerners, and an excited crowd of people of all ages came to meet us, the older ones swapping stories of the war, all clearly remembering the day when John’s tanks had swept through the village six decades before. By midday we had arrived in Meiktila, where over a superb BBQ lunch provided by Orient Express’s magician-like chefs, Colonel Bill Prince spoke movingly of the gallantry of those who fought in the town, most notably the VCs awarded to Naik Faisal Din of his father’s old regiment (The Baluch) and of Lieutenant Weston of the Green Howards. It was a weary but excited group who travelled slowly back to Bagan, through Kyaukpadaung, that evening.

The return journey took us directly to the Irrawaddy waterfront, where the first sight of the “Road to Mandalay” sitting still on the tranquil waters was breathtaking. The ship’s crew worked tirelessly to ensure our comfort and the aches and weariness of the long day quickly dissipated. The following two days were spent in excursions north along the river to the trading centre at Pakokku, where a stiff fight had taken place to eject the Japanese by 114 Brigade in the first week of February 1945, and to Myinmu, where the 20th Indian Division had successfully begun crossing the river on the 12th of February 1945. We also enjoyed seeing Sagaing’s memorable ‘Tit Pagoda’, a famous landmark to troops who had travelled down the dusty road towards Mandalay from Monywa and Shwebo sixty years before. From thence we crossed the old Ava Bridge, demolished in part by Slim during the retreat to India in April 1942, and soon to be removed for ever when the modern new bridge across the river is completed, before we made our way into Mandalay, the centre of the hopes and dreams of the whole 14th Army in early 1945, and the heart of General Kimura Hyotaro’s defence of the ‘Irrawaddy Shore’.

The ancient capital of Burma retains many of its charms, and the magnificent Fort Dufferin dominates the north of the city. Above this towers Mandalay Hill. This vantage point, seized after a hard fight on 8/9th March 1945 by 4/4 Gurkhas, provides magnificent views in all directions, east to the Shan Hills which rise abruptly from the plain, and west, north and south to the mighty Irrawaddy, flowing in inexorable timelessness from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal and Gulf of Martaban to the south. The following day two successful expeditions were conducted. Colonel Bill Prince took a small group to the 19 Indian (‘Dagger’) Division crossings in the area of Singu, where his father’s 5/10th Baluch had crossed the river on 11 January 1945, a full month before those in the south at Myinmu and Nyaungu, before driving hard from the north against stiff opposition to Mandalay.

An attempted expedition to Monywa, site of a near disaster in 1942 and Slim’s Forward Army HQ in 1945, sadly failed because of the state of the roads, but a large party enjoyed a very successful visit to the old hill station and summer capital at Maymyo. It was here in 1942 that Mike Calvert first met with Orde Wingate and which in 1944 and 1945 had been a centre for Force 136 guerrilla activity against the Japanese. Private Dennis Greenslade, late of the Welch Regiment, gave a moving commentary on the operations to seize the town by a coup-de-main attack in March 1945, where the Japanese had been taken completely by surprise and an important reinforcement (and withdrawal) route into Mandalay from the Shan Hills cut off. In Maymyo we met up with Jamadar Badriprasad Prahan MC, late of the 10th Gurkhas and 4th Burma Rifles, who had fought at the Sittang in 1942 and had marched out to India in the retreat. In 1944 he had parachuted back into his native Shan Hills to lead a unit of Force 136 guerrillas with notable distinction.

Colonel James Evans, also late of the 10th Gurkhas, who had fought through the long Tiddim and Bishenpur battles in the same year, enjoyed a long reminiscence with Badriprasad over lunch. During the visit, which included a trip to the magnificent botanical gardens, first laid out by Colonel May in the 1880s, we also met Captain Arthur Andrews of the Burma Rifles and Force 136, and 94 year old Sepoy Saradar Singh of the 8th Burma Rifles, who remained a prisoner of the Japanese for three long, hard years.

Journeying back to Rangoon by air from Mandalay on the penultimate day of our journey we had much to dwell on as we left the site of the great encounter battles of 1945, battles in which Slim’s army had decisively bettered those of the Japanese vainly defending Burma from the aggressive determination of men and women with an esprit de corps which Slim memorably noted ‘had surprised our friends and shocked our enemies.’ That night at the Traders Hotel in the city Orient Express hosted a reception for us at which we were able to invite the many friends we had made in the country during our stay, Burmese, expatriate and veterans alike, together with the British Ambassador. Earlier, we had held a service of commemoration at the Anglican Cathedral, where we laid a wreath and remembered those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

It was a fitting finale to an exhausting but exhilarating journey into history and memory.

DEKHO! 2005