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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 13

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Lt Peter StJ Grant RE, Lt Pennock RE , Capt Truter IE, Major A L Shaw RE, Lt Raju IE, Subedar Mohd Tahar IE
Location of story: 
Dimapur and the road to Imphal , Manipur State
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 November 2004

Dimapur April 1945: Officers of 607 Indian Electrical and Mechanical Company IE; L to R Lt Peter StJ Grant RE, Lt Pennock RE*, Capt Truter IE, Major A L Shaw RE, Lt Raju IE, Subedar Mohd Tahar IE. * Lt Pennock RE of Whitby, sadly died in a road accident at end 1945 or early 1946 after I had left India.

Apart from an “Engineer’s Pocket Books” brought with us from Britain we had no modern textbooks. Nearly every problem was solved by trial and error and original thinking, much of which was by the Indian troops themselves.

For example, Havildar Ragunath Pershad, who had been Lieutenant Herbert Eastwood’s bearer in the early days at Jhansi, solved a shortage of electric batteries for our road vehicles by teaching himself how to split up old batteries into their separate cells and reassembling only the good cells. This versatile young soldier was promoted to Jemadar, a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer.

American equipment increasingly found its way to and through Manipur Road base.One piece of plant gave us a lot of trouble before we could set it to work. A one ton per day icemaking unit, it operated not on ammonia, with which we were familiar, but on freon gas. The operation and maintenance handbook had fallen victim to the monsoon rains and was mostly in unreadable pulp. The print on one or two vital pages had transferred itself on to some packing paper which we ironed out and read with the aid of a mirror.

From this the word "freon" emerged, and the fact that it was a colourless, odourless gas, undetectable without special equipment which we did not possess. We nowadays know this gas as as an ozone destroying environmental hazard. Then it was completely novel.

Our problem was that we could not tell whether its compressor and pipework was full or empty of the gas. Finally we decided to risk starting up its built-in petrol engine and opening up all the control valves.

Much to our relief it started to make ice. This machine, together with an old twelve ton per day unit working on ammonia as a refrigerant, was the source of ice for the British and Indian General Hospitals at Manipur Road Base.

The 20 Horsepower engine driving the electric generator for Kohima Garrison Cinema early in 1945 repeatedly burned out its exhaust valves before we realised that the cause was the use of standard road vehicle leaded petrol. Road vehicle engines run at continuously variable speeds and loadings. Oxide deposits from the lead in the fuel form on the exhaust seatings but cause little trouble because under the continual variations in temperature they expand and contract and flake away into the exhaust gases. An electricity generator on the other hand tends to work for hours at steady load.

Oxides deposit on the exhaust valve seatings preventing the valves from closing properly and in a fairly short time the engine loses compression and becomes difficult to start. We cured the problem by arranging for a special supply of non leaded petrol. After that we had no further trouble.

We operated and maintained nineteen steam rollers in the Base and at various points on the Imphal Road. These were ancient machines combed from the highways and byways of Britain and India for war service. One day we received an urgent telephone message from Kohima Hospital to say that one of our Sappers had lost some fingers in an explosion.

I immediately motored the forty mile journey to visit him in hospital. He was a member of a small steam roller maintenance team, which, under a junior NCO, was repairing the valve gear of a steam roller several miles south of Kohima on the road to Imphal at a point where a few months earlier there had been a battle with the Japanese.

He had all but finished his job but needed a split pin to complete it. Casting about among the debris of the earlier battle he saw a split pin in an unfamiliar object. He removed it and lost three fingers to a Japanese plastic hand grenade. He was lucky not to be killed.

Back in the Base, the daily routine included sending an early morning truck laden with local Assamese firemen who were dropped off at each steam roller to light the furnace and raise steam an hour or so before the arrival of the sapper driver.

One firemen applied too much petrol in starting the furnace. The resultant explosion burned his semi-naked legs and body badly enough for hospitalisation. He was in the Base Indian General Hospital where he was treated as a soldier not a civilian..In due course his burns healed and the hospital, unable to vary its routine sent him a thousand miles away to a military convalescent hospital near Madras.

The first we knew of this was the receipt of a letter, obviously written on the man’s behalf by a street letter writer in Madras, saying that as he was a civilian the hospital had no authority to give him a soldiers railway ticket and would we please send him a railway warrant. This we did, but before it could reach him he arrived back at Manipur Road having travelled, mostly on railway carriage roofs, free and illegally!

As the Burma campaign progressed through 1944, and vehicles and armaments of every description poured up and down the Imphal Road in support of 33 and 4 Corps the wear and tear on the road surface required all steam and diesel rollers to work seven days a week, consolidating surface patches and reconstructed stretches.

As long as a roller could run at all it was kept going,only taken into Workshops when completely unserviceable. One hot Sunday afternoon I was relaxing in a “planters chair” after lunch when a Sapper steam roller driver came to see me. He was obviously in a state of shock after being involved in an accident.

Pausing only to ask him the nature and location of the accident I sent him to the medical officer. He had been operating a steam roller without brakes and accidentally driven it over an embankment. I knew that he had been rolling a stretch of road between Dimapur and Nichugard and drove in that direction. Much of the road ran on a “bund” or embankment up to twenty feet high surrounded by dense rain forest.

It took two or three passes in each direction before my eye was caught by the glint of sun on the funnel of a steam roller lying at the foot of the bund, nearly completely hidden by the surrounding rain forest.

This roller, pending the manufacture of new brakeshoes, had been authorised to work on this fairly level stretch of road. It was braked by using the reversing gear. The driver had attempted a forbidden manoeuvre, a three point turn on the twenty foot wide road, and reversed too late.

He had leapt clear just in time. There it lay, steam leaking from it gently, a recovery problem weighing eight tons. How could it be retrieved without blocking the main L of C ?

I knew of no unit in the Base with the necessary heavy lifting gear. Driving morosely and deep in thought back to the Base Workshop I spotted an unfamiliar unit sign on a stick at the entrance to a Jungle glade.

A British REME tank recovery unit had paused overnight on its way into Burma. The OC readily agreed to help, lending the services of one of his giant Scammell tractors fitted with a massive winch.

Under command of a young lance-corporal the giant vehicle followed my truck back to the stricken steam roller. On the way, another of our steam rollers was seen bogged down in monsoonal mud.

The Scammell crew looped a thick hawser around the base of its funnel and hauled it out of the mud like a cork out of a bottle. Things were looking promising!

At last we arrived on the scene of the accident. I need not have worried about a lengthy blockage of the road. The Scammell crew quickly reversed the tractor up to edge of the bund and rapidly rove a pulley block and tackle down to the steam roller. With one of the crew standing on the roller footplate to operate the steering gear the still steaming monster was hauled slowly up the embankment to a natural resting point where it was wedged until the block and tackle could be readjusted.

Then with one more heave it was on the road, unharmed except for one broken firebar in its furnace. From start to finish the operation had taken only fifteen minutes
Having thanked the crew we returned to the REME unit’s HQ. There the Major in command when asked what gift we could make in return asked modestly for a bag of coke to fuel his blacksmith’s forge.which we readily found for him. Next morning the Tank Recovery unit had departed on its way to Burma.

During the 1944 monsoon a column of Chindits arrived at Dimapur from Burma, badly in need of home comforts. 345 Company were requested to set up a bath unit at extremely short notice. For this we decided to provide both hot and cold water supplies. We brought an old steam roller boiler on site and set it up on a brickwork plinth to provide hot water. Time was short and the Chindits arrived just as we were completing the job. There was no time to test the system. Water was pumped out of the Dhansiri River now flooded by monsoon rains.. When the first Chindits went through the showers they emerged muddier than they were before! Eventually we got it right! Nevertheless our efforts were much appreciated.

At the end of 1944 345 Company became involved in maintenance of mechanical and electrical plant strung out along the road through Kohima. This was most enjoyable for a number of reasons, not least that it was an escape from the climate of the Nambhor Forest which except for three winter months was very trying.

Instead I was working in the Naga Hills at altitudes of a few thousand feet, a most refreshing change.The CRE Kohima was an experienced “shikar” or hunter, and accustomed to making occasional forays to the Logtak Lake near Imphal from whence he would return with large numbers of wildfowl to stock the Mess kitchen freezer. In the few days in which I lived in that Officers Mess I sampled quail, snipe and other types of wildfowl It was high living after our interminable goat or corned beef!

This introduction to life in the Naga Hills was also memorable because it occurred during the short three month “cold weather” period from December, January and February. Even in the Assam Valley on the edge of which Dimapur lay, the three winter months were delightful. The average daily maximum temperature was no higher than about 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the minimum lay in the low fifties.

At night it was actually possible to feel cold, a tremendous relief after months of relentless heat and humidity. Rainfall was also low during the cold weather and the sun shone generally from clear blue skies.

The road from Dimapur to Imphal started to climb immediately on passing through the Nichugard Gorge at about Milestone 10. From there the road wound through the Naga Hills, really a chain of mountains of which the highest peak is Japvo (2,965 metres or 9,700 feet)half way between Kohima and Imphal. Every ten miles or so the road passed through small Naga villages each with their characteristic huts with their gable end bargeboards prolonged upwards into antler like shapes.

First was Ghaspani at Milestone 18, then Piphema at Milestone 28. Zubza at Milestone 38 was followed by Kohima (4,400 feet) at Milestone 46. Viswema at Milestone 52, Jakhoma at Milestone 56 led to Mao-Songsang (4,900 feet) Milestone 66, spiritual home of the Angami Naga tribe. There the Imphal road momentarily divided into two to pass round a grassy knoll upon which were “Genna” stones, sacred to the Angami Nagas.

The Angami and other Naga tribes had the custom of commemorating important occasions or important people by dragging enormous stones up from the valley floors and erecting them, rather like the stones of Stonehenge at suitable points near their villages. It was therefore fitting that the Angami Nagas, free of charge, dragged such a stone to the Kohima War Cemetery where it became the memorial of the 2nd British Division with incised upon it the words which nowadays commemorate the dead of the whole 14th Army: The words are inscribed on that stone standing in the Kohima war cemetery:

“When you go home
tell them of us and say
for their tomorrow
we gave our today.”

For the 56 miles between Nichugard gorge and Mao Songsang there were several places at which the road was unstable, requiring constant rebuilding to keep traffic flowing. The most notorious point was on the Zubza side of Kohima where the road crossed a bed of shale which was in constant downhill movement.

At Mao Songsang was the office of a Garrison Engineer, a R E Captain. He lived in a small two roomed stone bungalow. The walls of his living room were tastefully hung with Naga spears and Naga tribal cloths, each signifying by pattern and colour a different Naga tribe. Immediately below his bungalow was the Naga village.

A hundred yards up the mountain on the other side of the Imphal Road was the “dak-bungalow” for travellers like myself to occupy. It was a rather eerie place, made no more comfortable by the knowledge that a few months earlier a desperate battle had been fought here between the Japanese and 14th Army.

From Mao Songsang the road undulated at an average 4,000 feet altitude to Maram. Nearby the great peak of Japvo towered. Then came Karong Milestone 92, and beyond here, near Kangpokpi (3,500 feet3, Milestone 115, as one proceeded to Imphal the mountain side fell away on the left into the wide floored Manipur River valley, the whole scene reminiscent of parts of the Scottish Highlands.

Then at Milestone 123 came Kanglatombi (2,900 feet) and the entrance to the Imphal Plain (2,400 feet) and, continuing past the airstrip which lay on the left, finally we would reach Imphal, capital of the independent Indian State of Manipur,with its stonebuilt Officers Mess and a fair sized town and market.

The above names and milestone locations are from notes and photographs made in 1945. Not all are mentioned on page 494 of ‘The War against Japan” Volume II which also gives an outline description of the Imphal Road.

I made several inspection trips on the Imphal Road from January until September 1945, initially as 2 I/c and Workshops Captain of 345 Company and from March as O.C 607 Indian E and M Company IE, getting to know some colourful characters who were stationed along its length.

Every 10 miles was an Assam Tea Association labour battalion, each in sole command of an Indian Army Captain who in private life had been engaged in tea garden management in one capacity or another.I had long observed in travelling on the road that each ATA battalion camp was overlooked by the officer’s bamboo basha invariably built a hundred feet or more up the mountain side.and accessed only by a long and precipitous flight of steps cut into the ground.

One of these officers stopped me on the road and asked for advice on the repair of his electric lighting generator. I was invited to luncheon in his elevated. bamboo basha.Here I was astonished by the comfortable style of his living. We were waited on hand and foot by two most attractive Naga girls.

He said that one of the girls belonged to his friend at the next battalion who had gone on leave leaving her in his safe keeping, which apparently entailed sleeping with both girls simultaneously.

Having taken the generator back to Dimapur Base Workshops in due course I returned it to him. This of course involved a second well cooked curry luncheon. The domestic atmosphere had subtly changed however. The second girl was no longer there. His own girl was still in residence but while serving the meal kept up a constant barrage of argument with him in Naga language, finally becoming so aggressive that she threw a large bowl of rice all over him as he sat at table..

She then disappeared and I asked what that had all been about. He explained that she had come from her village to live with him by permission of her parents with whom he had some sort of contract. She had decided to leave him and go back to her parents, but this was not the cause of the animosity. He had a Naga dog, to which she was very attached and wanted to take it home with her but he would not agree.The Nagas are very fond of their dogs, which are rather like huskies. They are kept by them not so much for hunting as for eating. For some days before a feast the selected dogs will be fed to bursting point with rice and then killed and roasted, ready stuffed. So at least I was told on what seemed good authority. I had a fine Naga dog named “Baloo”.after the bear in Kipling’s Jungle Book”

A similar situation arose when I met another ATA officer. He was living in a similarly elevated hut, also with a Naga girl, and he invited me to dinner. The Naga girl served us at table with the delicious food she had cooked but then withdrew to a low table in a far corner of the room.

When I suggested that she should join us at table my host was astonished. He explained that she knew her place. This officer had equipped his home with various bits and pieces of electrical gear, most obtained from a Lee Grant tank which had fallen into a ravine.

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