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Arthur Nicholls - The War Years - Part 2

by RobertFran

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Arthur Nicholls
Location of story: 
India, Burma,
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 August 2005


On 13th April 1943, I stepped on board the Union Castle line ‘Athlone Castle’ at Liverpool. The ship soon filled with thousands of soldiers, a few nurses and a small party of the women’s services. Our destination was ‘ hush hush’ but it was obviously not a ferry trip to the Isle of Man.

After a couple of days lingering off New Brighton Pier we set off northwards to the Firth of Clyde where a large convoy of ships was assembling. We soon discovered we were the flagship of the convoy and the convoy Commodore was aboard. There were 30 or more merchant ships of all sizes and speeds and another passenger liner troopship, plus 9 warships.

After we passed the northern tip of Ireland heading west, we heard our destination was India. I had never been to sea before, except the odd pleasure boat round Bridlington Bay.

Convoy tactics had been much improved, the naval presence had been ‘beefed up’, air cover zones had been greatly extended by using long range aircraft and Empire bases, and detection devices on ships and planes had been improved.

Our convoy had a few anxious moments. I still recall one — I was in the bath ! The Tannoy on the corridor blared out ‘ACTION STATIONS’ followed by the barking of orders.

My father recalled seeing Table Mountain near Cape Town, shrouded in clouds. The overall journey took 8 weeks due to the necessary zig-zagging of the convoy to avoid submarines. He knew he had arrived in India, when the ship’s Tannoy system played the wailing sounds of ‘All India Radio’.

On arrival in Bombay we were given a day off from the ship to go sightseeing. I remember the terrible heat and scores of ragged boys who followed us in hope of securing a ‘shoe-shine’ job. I remember too the scores of beggars — blind, deformed, leprous and in all sorts of conditions that defy description. I remember too the street where ‘Ladies of the East’ display themselves behind barred window openings at street level.

After visiting the ‘Gateway of India’ commemorating King George V’s visit for the Great Durbar of 1911, Harry (Harry Williams) and I decided to transport ourselves to the Hanging Gardens at Malabar on the outskirts, where the Parsees place their dead on high platforms above the ground. The vultures do the rest.

Nest day we entrained for Deolali, known to all soldiers who have ever served in India. It is situated in the Western Ghats, a low range of hills similar to the Derbyshire hills. This is a great sorting-out station for arrivals and departures. It was organised into Companies of 250 — 300 men. Each Company generally serves a particular Regiment or group of regiments. Royal Engineers do not normally serve in India so we were attached to the Yorkshire Light Infantry under Major Nelson.

My father spent a few weeks in Lahore (Napier Barracks, also Wellington Barracks) where he was a Lance Corporal. In his own words, he spent several weeks ‘larking about’ here. He then travelled to Assam. On the journey, which took several weeks, he stopped at Lucknow. He visited the cemetery where ‘Jessie’ of the song ‘Jessie’s Dream’ — a Victorian (?) ballad — was buried. He also visited Calcutta.

He then spent some time in Assam in 179 Company, building airfields, with a mainly Indian workforce. During this time, he lived on a deserted tea plantation, in comfortable surroundings. He thinks his posting there was as a result of an administrative error which arose after a building was destroyed by fire. As well as his duties supervising Indian staff, he and another Englishman (named Eltrincham) shared the duties of Orderly Sergeant, whose responsibility was to look after the material requirements of the local Mess.

The War in Burma

The following 9 paragraphs were adapted by my father from a history book

The Japanese had war plans for the Far East ready in October 1941. They bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and invaded the Phillipines in December.

They attacked the British in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore and all had surrendered by mid February 1942. The Japs occupied Siam (Thailand) and crossed into Burma and on 16 December 1941 occupied an undefended airfield (Victoria Point) at the southern tip of Burma, but made no further land move for a month. The British were totally unprepared for the event and they totally under-estimated the capabilities of the Japanese armed forces.

The first air raid on Rangoon killed 1500 civilians. Panic spread like wildfire. Labour forces fled and refugees took to the roads, rivers and railways heading north. Civilian disorder, looting and arson were soon beyond control. Inmates of jails and asylums were let out. Zoo animals were set free. Burma had a very low priority in the Empire Defence Strategy.

Only 2 British battalions were stationed in Burma. The 1st Gloucesters at Rangoon (since 1938) and the 2nd Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at Mayanyo (?) (since 1935), an up-country hill station near Mandalay. These 2 battalions were peace-time regular army units with long traditions and all the usual impediments of peace soldiering — married quarters, families, regimental colours, regimental silver (weighing 5 cwts in one case) and the ‘spit and polish’ of ceremonial (lowering the colours at sundown etc). There were a few local defence forces recruited from pro-British hill tribes and some other local forces mainly raised around 1940-41. The Australians were worried by Japanese successes and withdrew their 7th Division back for home defence.

The 2 British battalions supplied men and equipment for the war in North Africa, the Middle East and provided instructors for the local defence forces. As a result, they were about half strength (i.e. about 500 men each). Many men had been overseas for several years and some were ‘time-expired’.

Burma has a land area nearly 3 times that of the UK. The coastline stretches for 1200 miles and , as the Japs had sunk 2 large battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, the Japanese Navy controlled the coastline and the entire Bay of Bengal. Burma is mountainous on all frontiers and easy movement is confined to the coastal plains. The land area is 50% jungle and these are mostly unoccupied. There are no proper road communications and no rail links between Burma and its neighbours, except the Burma Road used by the USA to supply war materials to the Chinese who had been at war with the Japs for several years. The Burma Road was soon cut off in early 1942.

The British in Burma were at panic stations. Expected reinforcements were diverted to Malaya and Singapore. Later reinforcements from India were lacking in jungle training, and never had time to become organised and had been given an impossible task, which ended in confusion and disasters.

Churchill called in Gen Alexander, whose calmness amidst chaos and defeat at Dunkirk had impressed him, to take over Burma Command. Alexander re-organised the forces now in Burma into a force known as BURCORPS under the leadership of Lt Gen Bill Slim, who had been transferred from the 10th Indian Division in Iran.

Slim had 2 Divisions, 1st Burma Division, a mixture of Burma Rifles, Indian and British battalions and the 17th Indian Division, another mixture of Burma, Indian and Ghurka units and the remainder of the KOYLI battalion. There were no signals units, no medical units and the forces had to rely on whatever civilian medical resources existed in Burma.

I left GREFORCE HQ in Assam (my Shangri-La) alone early in Jan 1944 and was processed along to Ranchi in India, the last known address of 15 Corps in which I was to join the Chief Engineer’s Branch. There I discovered that my new unit was somewhere in the Arakan coastal area, the hottest and most humid part of Burma. The journey took 3 weeks by trains (3 times), river steamers (twice), Army trucks and finally a sailing barge. I chummed up with every Tom, Dick and Harry, some Anglo-Indians and even some Italians, ex POW’s now on our ‘side’, who were part of a mule company on their way to Burma. One chap, an Englishman, I soon realised had never seen England. His parents were colonial types who lived in India.

I joined the Chief Engineers staff of 15 Indian Corps at Bawli in Burma on 7 February 1944. The last day of my joining had been chaotic. The last Transit Camp was organising the digging of defensive trenches in somewhat of a panic. The Japs had attacked and had surrounded a considerable British-Indian force in the Ngahydawk Pass (often referred to by British troops as the ‘Oky-dokey’ pass) some 7 miles away. The Japs had broken through our lines on the Arakan Road, which was full of ambulances and reserve movements. They had infiltrated through the jungle to a depth of 3 miles behind our forward infantry positions, and had surrounded the close support troops guarding the main stores of food, water, ammunition etc required to maintain the forward troops for at least a month. These stores were situated in a cul-de-sac end of a jungle track where vehicles could not proceed any further. Hundreds of vehicles were parked there. Two other units were also ‘resting’ there — the 2nd West Yorkshire Infantry and the 25th Dragoons (tanks). The Japs were ordered to attack with ‘fanatical fury’ the ‘Admin Box’ and capture all the stores, food and vehicles etc. Our forward troops would then be forced to retreat.

The British and Indian troops guarding the stores were ordered to make a ‘Last Stand’. At this time, I was at the last transit camp nearest my destination. Only medics were being allowed to go forward to the next place, Bawli Bazaar. One of them, a ‘chum’, told me that he was being allowed to travel on and that 15 Indian Corps HQ would be there. I persuaded the camp commandant to let me go with the medics. I did not realise at the time that the mode of transport would not be an Army truck. It turned out to be a sailing barge !

I boarded it going down the Naf River and up the Bawli Chaung. I could hear the sounds of battle 7 miles away. When I got off the barge I rested by a deserted hospital hutted compound. I was on my own with 60 lbs of kit (kitbag, back pack, bedding roll, rifle, ammunition, gas mask, steel hat etc) and no transport. The temperature was 90 degrees F and I could not have walked more than 200 yards. I rested by a bamboo stockade about 3 feet high. I stood on it and realised it was giant Geneva Cross (Red Cross) within the derelict hospital site. Bawli trestle bridge was nearby and ambulances were crossing it nose to tail. The ‘medic’ cadjed a lift with one of these and left vaguely telling me to look around for my Corps sign. (I hadn’t a clue what this was — whether it was a tiger crouchant or an elephant passant, but signs such as those might have been appropriate for an Indian Corps. It turned out to be a simple 3 black Roman V’s on a red background).

Men were busy laying cables along the Arakan Road, a dusty track not worth the name. I went along to make enquiries. The Sergeant soon made it clear that he was too busy to act as nursemaid to a lost lance-corporal ! Ambulances kept coming up the road and 2 pulled in the compound for a rest. One of the wounded asked if I was waiting for a bus ! I was too hot and bothered to think up a reply. I was wishing I had not come here. The men laying cables were too busy to bother about a lost lance corporal ! A Signals officer in a Jeep stopped and enquired why I was there. He was from 15 Corps HQ and I was soon throwing my kit in the back of the Jeep. From that moment, I began to believe in the ‘Guardian Angel’ theory.

15 Corps HQ was about half a mile from the bridge. A day earlier, the HQ had been 5 miles down the Arakan Road. The conditions were appalling. Primeaval jungle, choking dust everywhere. Our sleeping quarters could only be described as a ‘foxhole’ with bits of tentage, corrugated iron and netting forming a ‘shack’ in a gulley, as cover. The floor was dust and infested with various tropical insects. Our work area was tentage covered with camouflaged netting under tree cover. Bawli was a desolate place with few signs of civilian life, but plenty of signs of army presence, dereliction, abandoned vehicles, mule lines, hospital huts, corrugated iron etc, accumulated during the to-ing and fro-ing of troop movements during the last 18 months. The chief landmark was Bawli bridge, a wooden trestle bridge built by the Engineers. There were scores of similar ones in the Arakan. The next day a Jap plane came over to bomb it, but hit the derelict hospital instead.

I soon felt at home with my new ‘mates’. The Chief Engineers Branch comprised a Brigadier, a Lt Colonel, a Major, 4 Captains, all staff officers. These were supported by a Warrant Officer, 2 Sergeants, 2 Corporals and 2 Lance Corporals (I was the junior Lance Corporal - having been demoted on posting). Other supporters (about 34) were Indians including Batmen, Drivers and an Electric Lighting Crew.

I was to work for the Engineer Intelligence Officer and a Sergeant Draughtsman (Bill Channon) and myself made up the drawing office element. Our job was chiefly map work. The Arakan area was poorly mapped. Only the coastal area was mapped and these were of small scale, usually 40 years out of date and usually useless. The inland areas were mostly uncharted primeaval jungle and the entire area was primitive with few signs of civilised activity. There were no roads, no telephones, no electric lines, no water supply and no railways, apart from the relics of a short railway line from Maungdaw, a tiny port on the coast to Buthidaung, which was now converted to a road. This feature, known as the Maungdaw-Buthidaung line was the main defensive front line of the Japs and had been so since 1942. It was situated about 10 miles from Bawli.
We used air photos supplied by the RAF and applied the principles of photogrametry taken from the army manual. The air photos were all stereoscopic pairs and we used pocket stereoscopes to pick out details. Our eyesight did not benefit. We used a solar printing frame to produce copies. We also produced a variety of working drawings including mines booby traps, rafts to carry supplies down the Kalendan River and an Aerial Ropeway to carry supplies over the Goppe Pass (this being 300ft long and in 10 sections).

At my request, in October 1997, my father wrote a letter to the Narrow Gauge Railway Society in response to a article published by them in the magazine ‘The Narrow Gauge’ on the subject of the Maungdaw — Buthidaung railway, which had ceased operations in 1924.

In mid 1944, my father took some leave, and went to Darjeeling. On 11th June, he and small party of other soldiers, together with Nepalese guides and carriers, set off on a 5 day walk to the foothills of Mount Everest. He sent an account of this back to his wife, which was passed by the Field Censor. Most of this account survives.

(following paragraph taken from a private letter)

Paul Robeson — a great bass voice — has a special memory for me. I was in a Field Hospital in Burma.The ward was a camouflaged marquee and I had Malignant Malaria, was too ill to get up and was not responding to treatment. We had a wind-up gramaphone with one record. Robeson on one side sang ‘The Banjo Song’ — a rather melancholy tune which matched my depression at the time. I can still remember the melancholy tune but not the words. I have seldom heard the song since. I went by hospital ship to Chittagong in India where I slowly recovered and went back to Burma. My stay in Chittagong was horrible — the hospital was hardly worth the name, and after a short while feeling improved I discharged myself and made my way back via boat to the Arakan.

The malaria affected my father for the rest of his life. He had a slight paralysis on one side of the face and did not display the usual symptoms when he suffered a cold.

At the end of 1944, my father helped organise the ‘Other Ranks’ Mess Christmas dinner. He designed and wrote the menu booklet, a copy of which he kept.

My father left the Arakan in Easter 1945, he was flown by Dakota (one of the two occasions in his life he ever flew) to Akyab Island, where there was an Army base — the Japanese in Burma were by now in full retreat. He was then sent by boat back to India via Madras. The journey across the Bay of Bengal took ages, and some of the men on the boat rigged up a device to measure the boat’s speed, which they threw in the water and trailed behind the boat. The boat was only travelling at 2.5 miles an hour.

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Posted on: 18 October 2005 by AgeConcernShropshire

This is a message about Arthur Nicholls' story "The War Years part 2".

My late father Staff-Sergeant Phil Vaughan was a Royal Engineer who served in the area of Bawli Bazaar, Burma; at the same time.

I you remember him I would be most grateful if you could reply to this message.

In my Father's War Diary he too mentions the Jap plane that hit the hospital.

Thank you.

Muriel Palmer

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