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- James Russel Nimmo
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- 26 January 2006
James Russel Nimmo At Kalimpong North Bengal Nov 1942
Calcutta. November 1942
I am sending this letter by ordinary mail in order to forward a few photos taken in Burma shortly before our arrival in India. They are very poor photos and if this letter never arrives it will be no great loss. The other person in the photo is Thompson, who, as you can see from the photographs, was very sick indeed at that time. One picture also shows a hut in which we rested for a time on our way out and it is typical of some of the huts we stayed in.
Unfortunately, I have not got a picture of a Kachin house as they are rather interesting. Their chief peculiarity is their immense size. Sometimes you find a headman’s house that is sixty yards in length and about 15 yards in width. They have not a single window but numerous fires are kept burning inside. Sometimes you will find as many as six fires burning in different positions of the house and there is no outlet for the smoke unless the thatched roof has holes in it.
It is fairly cold in the hills, even in the rainy season — and one is glad of a fire for that reason and to keep away bugs and mosquitoes. As the Kachins have no matches and have invented no substitute as the hill tribes do, they always keep at least one fire smouldering at night and day during the rains.
There is not much point in my giving you any contemporary news in this letter as you will have had it all ages before in aerographs. I might, however, give one or two incidents of our journey out. It is a great pity that I cannot yet send you my full account of the journey as I think it would interest you. I have shown it to Geordie and several other people, who have found it quite easy to follow and only suffering from a number of spelling errors.
Stream crossings were our worst nightmare throughout the journey. I think I have already told you of the one which happened towards the end of the journey when our raft was broken up under us by a sudden rise which only started when we were halfway across the stream. Another awkward one was at the beginning of the journey. While marching through forest we had met a huge force of our own troops. At that time we had about 200 men with us, Ghurkhas and Karens. We were given 55 Army mules which were not required by the people we met and also a lot of stores to put on them. Next day, the whole force set off in 5 separate parties as it had been decided to split up as Japs were known to be only 10 miles away.
We came, the next morning, to a big, rapid stream about 100 yds in width. Arrangements were supposed to have been made for rafts etc for crossing but these arrangements had not come off. We arrived last of all the parties and found complete confusion on the banks of the stream which were very steep. About 600 troops were massed on the near bank while a raft was slowly being dragged back and forth carrying about 3 men per trip. As we stood and watched, enormous numbers of Chinese soldiers began to arrive. There must have been about 4000 of them. I saw that we would have to fend for ourselves if we were not to be held up for days so we moved about 400 yards downstream and, after tying our mules’ baggage ropes together, we got one of our men, who could swim like a fish, to swim the end of the rope across and fix it as an anchor line. We then got our men to swim our pony across and the mules all followed it without hesitation.
While this was going on, our men had been salvaging bamboo rafts which were carried off downstream as quickly as the Chinese, who are not watermen, could build them up above us. Within two hours we, and all our kit, had reached the far bank while confusion still reigned at the old crossing place. During the two hours we had been crossing our men had swum out and saved four Chinese from drowning, while several others had been drowned before our eyes. Their fellow countrymen took no interest whatsoever. Other rafts containing Chinese soldiers got out of control and were swept past us in the direction of Rangoon. The men on board these would be frantically paddling in all directions at once. They looked very comic and I don’t suppose they would have come to any harm unless their raft hit a snag.
It had been a rather trying morning to my mind because, although I had complete confidence in our ability to cross the river quickly, I thought there was a great risk of our being seen from the air as numerous Jap bombers were going over all the time. The old crossing place would have been an absolute shambles as there must have been almost 5000 men packed close together on this very steep bank.
After we had been travelling for about twenty days, we had a very lucky meeting with one of the Shan Princes, whom I knew as he had an English wife, and, as I discovered later, had been at Cambridge at the same time as me. We had come to the end of a very long and hot march when I came across a villager who told me that the prince had taken refuge in a forest dept bungalow about 300 yds off our road. I went in across an awful jungle track and found a lovely little rest house with English horses grazing in the compound and a mass of superb motor cars parked outside including an enormous Bentley saloon. It was a most incongruous sight and was followed by another when we sat down in all our filthy clothes to a magnificent dinner on a fine white cloth with sherry, white wine, sparkling moselle and liqueurs. I cannot think of a time when I enjoyed home comforts so much. We spent a lovely night sleeping on soft grass under a tree in the compound.
At this period, it was still the hot weather and we were spending every night sleeping in the open. It was the most pleasant part of the trip and a much better way of spending nights than in a smoky Kachin hut lying on the hard floor with a wooden pillow. I never learnt the art of sleeping on a wooden pillow and always had to cushion it with a shirt or hat but I soon learnt to sleep peacefully on the bare ground until I got thin towards the end of the trip and my ribs and thigh bone used to get very sore.
Much love to yourself and to Aunt Peg.
Note from contributor:
Read 'Desperate Journey' by Francis Clifford
Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN 0 340 24645 6
Jimmy Nimmo was killed near Wewadoko Village in 1944 while trying to flee after an abortive mission.
See article entitled 'Jungle Journey' by Major W.E. Poles
My grandfather's story
1943 — 1945
‘P’ Force 136
‘We were operating from the Chin and Naga hills overlooking the Kabaw Valley.
Our force was given instructions to go ahead of the 21st Indian division commanded by General Gracie.’
My grandfather, the late Major William Eustace Poles, M.C. wrote these memoirs and placed them in the sleeve of a book entitled, ‘Desperate Journey’ by Francis Clifford. This book tells the story of the few dozen Karen tribesmen who made their own nine hundred mile desperate journey through the stark wilderness that separates Burma from China, led by Arthur Thompson. This remarkable account inspired my grandfather to write these words:
‘A faded memory is greatly stimulated by this saga. Again, I can feel the crushing weight of equipment, the Bergen pack alone weighing 60lbs. There was the anguish of bursting lungs and aching muscles driving a weary, overloaded body up the steep hills again and again. I can smell the scent of the sodden jungle. Through the canopy pours the violent monsoon rain which seems continuous. It turns each stream into a formidable rushing torrent.
The hilltops are shrouded in heavy cloud with intervening valleys wreathed in mist. A pervading silence is occasionally torn by penetrating eerie cries of gibbons. The jungle tracks are swarming with leeches. Their sinuous, upright forms weave in anticipation while others poise ready to drop from the foliage above. As soon as they detect the vibration of our footfall, the leeches drop upon their victim, who, already in a debilitated condition, cannot afford the loss of blood nor withstand the resulting septic sores from the wounds.
Beyond the reach of medical attention, the hazard of sickness (both from disease and the wounds) remains a constant threat. Hunger and starvation are constant spectres and few men will not privately admit to occasions when there prevails a haunting sense of fear.
Memory recalls a time when our jungle boots were held together by a binding of ‘nees’ which are thin strips of the outer skin of green bamboo. Our uniform clothing was rotten and tattered. Nine months after being parachuted into the Karen hills, we were supported by a minimal number of air sorties. The loads were dropped from such a height that only a small proportion of the vital supplies were recovered.
Our intelligence gathered reliable information from our drop zone at Pyagawpu on 24th February 1945, to our operational area at Loikaw. We established that when Seagrim surrendered (in order to protect the local Karen community) he was confined to prison in Rangoon and so he remained for some months before being publically executed by beheading with the sword. We also learnt that Jim Nimmo and Macrindle, who were no longer in radio communication with India, were on the run again heading northwards on the all-to-familiar route of their previous perilous journey but with greatly diminished hope. The two were overtaken in an ambush and Macrindle was killed. Jim Nimmo escaped and for some time proceeded alone but he was then betrayed by a headman of the nearby village who was anxious to avoid the inevitable reprisals against his people deemed to be involved. Jim Nimmo was surrounded in his bivouac close by Wewadoko village and killed. His body was buried by the villagers where he fell.’
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