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15 October 2014
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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 12

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Margaret Watson (maiden name) , Major E.G Bailey RE, Lt-Gen (later Sir) William Slim
Location of story: 
Manipur Road Advanced Base, Srinagar, Kashmir, and Imphal Road, Assam.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3264211
Contributed on: 
12 November 2004

MPQ Advanced Base 1944. 345 Company's Hudswell Hunslett 0-4-0 two foot gauge steam locomotive. It pulled trains of boulders from the Dhansiri River to stone crushers on the Imphal Road. L to R Engine Driver Steam Spr Dhani Ram, Naik Nur Khan, Hav.Clk Ghulam Ahmed Nissar, Capt Alan Shaw RE

Before departing on leave to Kashmir I made out a detailed handing over statement to Lieut Alec Scott listing every item of activity for which I was responsible. This four page memo typed on 24th May 1944 survives. It provides a “snapshot” of 345 Workshop and Park Company I E at work in the Engineer Base Workshops and around the Manipur Road Advanced Base on that day.

At the nearby Military Engineer Services Power House run by us for the Garrison Engineer a generator was being repaired and extra cabling was being installed to enable it to run our sawmill on nightshift. This was to save a generator in our own powerhouse from being overworked. In the Fitters Workshop a wide range of equipment was being improvised or repaired - a workshop power drive shaft, a ram pump for local water supply.

For XXXIII Corps a diesel roller liner was being cast in the foundry and a special gearwheel pinion turned on a lathe.Some Norton Tube wells were in production, five diesel engines from roadmaking machinery with various breakdowns were under repair and a two feet gauge steam locomotive fitted out for a railway carrying stones from the Dhansiri River to a battery of stone crushers a mile or two distant.

These made chippings for the continual repair of the hard worked Imphal Road. A petrol locomotive at Nichugard crushing plant, dumpers, tractors, and some of our nineteen antiquated steam rollers, one badly damaged by a night time collision with a tank, were all being patched up in one way or another. Renovation of our defensive weapon pits was also in hand although we now had orders to take positions at 2 E S B D in event of attack.

On the date of the letter listing these hum drum events at Base, 46 miles along the Imphal road,at Kohima, XXXIII Corps was preparing to attack Aradura Spur and then push forward to Mao Songsang, stronghold of the Angami Nagas.

Of this we knew little or nothing. Manipur Road Base was never bombed.There was only an occasional air raid warning and it was obvious that the R A F and U S A F had air superiority. In 1944, as the aftermath of a terrible famine in Bengal the streets of Calcutta were cleared of starving men who were formed into labour battalions and sent up the L of C.

About two hundred of these unfortunates were placed under 345 Company command and occupied additional bamboo huts in our lines.We were ordered to use them for clearing jungle instead of the usual teams of Indian Tea Association labourers of which there was a battalion of one thousand every ten miles along the Imphal Road, each commanded by an ex tea planter Indian Army Captain. The “refugees” were accommodated in bamboo huts separate from our troop lines, but benefiting from the same carefully chlorinated drinking water and sanitary arrangements.

At first they were pathetic sights, too weak with starvation to do useful work. But even after months of proper feeding most had little inclination to work, were a potential threat to military discipline and required more supervision than we could afford.

Cooking and supply of rations added an additional requirement as they were rice eaters while our Punjabi Mussulmen and Hindu soldiers were atta eaters. However, probably for the first time in their lives, they received three square meals a day and were subject to daily inspection by medical and orderly officers.

I have already mentioned our Ceylon incident of cross-cultural friction between the Sinhalese residents and our Indian troops whose sanitary habits were blocking the drains. Here in Manipur Road we had a similar case when an African unit, temporarily billeted in huts adjacent to our troops, shared the ablution benches.The Africans caused grave offence by bathing completely naked. This Indian troops never do, always bathing modestly draped in a towel.We solved it by erecting bamboo matting screens.

Drinking water was supplied by traditional Sapper methods. From the nearby Dhansiri River, bearing during the monsoon the occasional dead cow or human being, water was pumped into tanks made of large tarpaulins supported by and lashed to picket posts. The incoming jet of brown water was directed through a wire cage containing a block of alum.The water was then left for twentyfour hours while a microscopic “skin” of alum sank slowly, carrying down to the bottom of the tank all particulate matter. The resultant clear water was then pumped into a second, similar tank where a prescribed weight of chloride of lime was scattered as a bactericide. After quite a short time the water was drinkable. We tended to err on the safe side, so that the water always tasted of chloride of lime.

I enjoyed my one month’s leave in June, travelling by train to Rawalpindi, overnighting at the famous old hotel, Flashman’s,and then sharing a hire-car to Srinagar where I stayed for a fortnight in a boarding house run by an elderly retired British colonel. The cool climate and mountain scenery made it an ideal holiday. Queuing up to buy stamps at the GPO I met an old friend of Edinburgh student days, Margaret Watson of the Edinburgh College of Art. She and her husband were missionaries in China and with one little girl and shortly expecting a second child she had been flown out over “The Hump” to Kashmir until her husband could join her.

Shortly after returning to Assam I had to motor from Manipur Road to the Samaguri Jungle Training School on the Assam Trunk Road between Nowgong and Golaghat. From a current map of India Samaguri was almost certainly part of what is now the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary. With a view to sharing the training facilities I was to rendezvous there with the C R E Artizan Works Group, West African Expeditionary Force.

He turned out to be none other than Lt Col E.G. Bailey R E, under whom I had served as a subaltern in 222 Field Coy RE in England! To celebrate our reunion “Bill” Bailey opened a jar of rum which he kept for emergencies and together with his British driver-batman we enjoyably harked back to old times. Some weeks later I returned to Samaguri with my Indian fellow officer Lieut John Elisha and some of our troops for training.

During our stay there local villagers appealed to us to shoot a “proscribed” tiger i.e. one which had taken to killing not only cattle but villagers. Despite our total lack of experience John and I went out at dusk with a few of our sappers and an unfortunate goat who was to be tethered as a bait. We were in a small farmyard, said to be on the tigers evening route, and took up individually chosen concealed positions each with a good view of the goat.I was lying in an uptilted, two wheeled ox cart along with Nur Khan, the Naik who had once illegally shot a deer in the Nambhor Forest.

We lay there, not daring to move a muscle, while the full moon rose higher and higher, the goat bleated, the mosquitoes whined and pinged and the cicadas provided background rhythm. The tiger was expected to come down from the wooded hill nearby. Well after midnight, cramped and itching with insect bites, I gingerly changed position. With a stupendous crash the ox cart tipped over on to its shafts and decanted Nur Khan and myself on to the ground. When everyone had finished laughing we realised that the tiger, if around, would have made himself scarce. The goat was retrieved and with it we returned to camp.

One did not need to leave the Assam Trunk Road to see big game.On one occasion a large tiger cantered in front of my moving station wagon in broad daylight. In those days there were said still to be 11,000 tigers in India. Now this magnificent animal is endangered. On another occasion one of our lorries was severely damaged by an Indian rhinoceros who made a flank attack on it while both were travelling at speed.

345 Indian Workshop and Park Coy IE and 607 Indian E and M Coy IE alone totalled nearly 500 soldiers. All had spent much time in weapon training and battle drill before arrival. At the time of the Japanese advance our normal armament of 0.303 rifles, Bren light machine guns and Boys anti tank rifles was augmented by issue on quite a generous scale of Thompson sub machine guns and Sten guns. In my recollection there were other armed units.

As Indian Engineer Line of Comminication (“L of C”) units we had to intensify our normal engineering work during daylight hours but meanwhile dig, and be ready to man at night, weapon pits all around our respective jungle clearings in case of surprise attack. In that event we were to revert to our secondary role of infantry. When about one month later Kohima was relieved - so were we!.

To understand how we in the Manipur Road Advanced Base (code named “MPQ”)appreciated our true place one only had to look at the heraldry of the formation badges worn near the shoulders of the military inhabitants.

The design for units of 253 L of C Sub Area which administered the Base was a view of the backside of a charging elephant with its tail well aloft. This was a humourous reminder that the Sub Area was to the rear of 4 Corps (the Imphal garrison) whose shoulder flash was the side view of a charging elephant.

We were issued with and proudly wore the white edged, red and black 14th Army shield shoulder badges. These we wore well into 1945 when, the Burma campaign having ended, we regretfully adopted the blue and gold ALFSEA shield (“Allied Land Forces South East Asia”).

In the intolerably hot and humid climate of the area clothes became sweat soaked almost as soon as put on. We in the Base and L of C areas were lucky to be able to change twice a day. The 14th Army badges were attached by three press studs, for ease of removal before going to the dhobi (washerman.).Probably for this reason they were always in short supply.

Missing badges were sometime temporarily replaced by ones available ion the local village bazaar. These were usually free interpretations by Indian merchants of the official badge designed personally by Lt-Gen Bill Sliman. Typically, extra embellishments such as gold thread would be added to the design.I saw such a badge displayed in a branch of the Imperial War Museum.

When, very late in the war (mid 1945), the issue of campaign medals was announced it took a long time before supplies of the ribbons arrived from the UK.(the medals themselves were not issued until after the war) .

Once again the indefatigable “bazaar-wallahs” met the huge unsatisfied market by weaving and selling miles of ribbons with colours and designs based purely on the official written description received from the United Kingdom. On leave in Bombay in 1945 I found that the Defence Medal ribbon offered for sale as such was completely spurious!

As well as hard work there was a social life in the Manipur Road Base. Except during the time of the Kohima crisis we would organise an Officers Mess party once or twice a month on a Saturday evening. Very occasionally we would be able to include one or two nursing sisters from the British and Indian Base Hospitals. More often it was a stag party.

When we first arrived in the Base in December 1943 there was very little variety in the rations. Apart from the occasional goat our staple diet revolved around tinned corned beef, soya links - sausages made of soya bean flour, and custard for about six months.

When fresh meat arrived it was always “on the hoof” in the form of goats, scrawny chickens and ducks. Shortly after we moved into our own encampment early in 1944 while inspecting the lines I found underneath the British Sergeants Mess basha or hut, built as usual on stilts, a pathetically bedraggled object.

It was some kind of duck, left over from the New Year rations and retained by the sergeants as a pet. I arranged for one of the jungle clearing coolie gangs to dig out a small pit in a nearby dried up nullah or river bed. This we pumped full of water and introduced the duck.

It immediately dived in and within a few minutes emerged as a fine plumaged mallard drake.The drake’s obvious appreciation led to the enlargement and fencing off of the pond to create a “Reception Camp” for ration ducks! At first it was a very short stay for the ducks before going to the cookhouses. A few months later a 200 ton meat refrigeration plant was established in the Base to benefit the 14th Army generally. Rations then became more varied.

However ducks and geese still continued to arrive and we were able to maintain a floating population of as many as forty birds, from which Officers Mess party guests would eat roast duck on a scale of one duck between two. Although we would sometimes buy in additional birds from villages on the Dimapur-Jorhat road, strangely, all our attempts at starting a breeding station failed. Either the birds laid no eggs or if they did the eggs were stolen by a very clever thief, whether two or four legged we never discovered.

Parties were fuelled by our pooled liquor rations, one bottle a month each of whiskey and gin from the Base NAAFI. Drinkable beer was unobtainable until we made contact with American Air Force bases in North Assam. They were short of whiskey but had unlimited supplies of very good beer. So every now and then we would arrange a rendezvous several miles along the Jorhat road for one of our trucks with bottles of whiskey to meet an American truck with crates of beer. We exchanged each bottle of Scotch or Canadian whiskey for one crate of beer.

Entertainment at Officers Mess parties revolved around drinking and sing-songs. Our Indian KCO Lieutenant John Elisha, and I, were both fairly proficient players of the ukulele and banjulele. I had well thumbed copies of the “Scottish Students Songbook” and the “British Students Songbook” massive tomes through which we thumbed calling out the tunes until consensus was reached among the guests.

We would then play and and sing the night away, accompanied by our guests, getting noisier and noisier as whiskey and beer consumption progressed. In those days everyone had been brought up in a pre-television society and depended on weekend sing- songs as an important part of home entertainment at home. There was a great sense of comradeship. Occasionally, especially after the relief of Kohima and Imphal,we would visit the Manipur Road Garrison Theatre and enjoy a show by ENSA.

I recall comedian Stainless Stephen and also Elsie and Doris Waters, in those days stars of British radio. Also of course there was a never to be forgotten visit by singer Vera Lynn. There seemed to be very few British top entertainers willing to travel out to the Burma theatre of war, but those who did were appreciated and never forgotten. On one occasion while sitting in the Garrison Theatre, waiting for the start of the show we suddenly realised that the lighting pendants were swaying violently. It was one of the earthquakes for which Assam was and still is notorious. Fortunately on that occasion the ground did not open and no buildings fell down.

The Indian troops also had very occasional visits from Indian concert parties. On at least one of these occasions we invited the entertainers, all male, into the Officers Mess for an evening meal. Many spoke English well and were interesting characters. One specialised in “fire eating” and also the eating of broken glass.

When we discussed the latter he offered to demonstrate while sitting among us at the table. Taking one of our wine glasses he bit pieces of glass from it and swallowed them all, opening his mouth to show us the pieces on their way down. He explained that before and after each performance he swallowed liberal quantities of castor oil.We felt sure that there must be more to it than that!

The part of dancing girls was always acted by men, many of whom looked quite convincing. A strange world indeed! Even on the occasion of a Hindu or Muslim holy day when no concert party was available the Indian troops, just like their British counterparts, were well able to make their own entertainment. The most unlikely soldiers would turn out to have some acting or musical speciality.

In fact a Company of Indian troops would turn out to contain the same range of “characters” as found in a British unit of the same size. 345 Company’s next door neighbours, 607 Indian E and M Coy IE, possessed a levelled off paddy field on which we played football and hockey with mixed teams of British officers, sergeants and Indian troops. The Indian troops were particularly keen on hockey, at which they excelled.

If football boots were not available we would play in bare feet or in gym shoes. These were opportunities for fraternising with our mostly young Indian troops. They expected their British officers to treat them paternally. But it was a free and easy relationship, especially when with a small working party on an outlying detachment. After a couple of years in the Indian Army we felt that we had very good relationship with our troops. One reason was that all Indian troops were volunteers.

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