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Rangoon Battalion: The 21st Mile Crossroads - Part 5

by Patricia Pringle

Contributed by 
Patricia Pringle
People in story: 
Fred Millem
Location of story: 
Burma
Article ID: 
A8063129
Contributed on: 
27 December 2005

PART 5
The 21st Mile Crossroads

If you look at a map of Burma you will see that the single road northwards from Rangoon forks at a point 21 miles from Rangoon. The left hand fork goes to Prome and the right hand fork to Pegu. The Japs were now seriously threatening this right hand fork and it was hourly expected that the road would be cut by the Japs somewhere around Pegu. If the Japs cut the Pegu Road they only had to advance southwards a few miles in order to capture the crossroads at 21st mile and if this happened all mechanical transport south of the 21st mile and north of that point on the Pegu Road would be trapped. Hence the rush to get everything away from Rangoon area and past the 21st mile on the Prome Road and hence the uncomfortability of our position when we had one platoon near Pegu and the remainder of the Company at Mingaladon — south of 21st mile. All non-combatant units had already withdrawn along the Prome Road and arrangements had been completed for the demolition of everything south of 21st mile (chiefly Rangoon and the Syriam refineries) that was likely to be of use to the enemy.

The Pegu front was being held by the heroic 17th Division who had already been in constant action for three months during which time they had had no rest and had suffered very severe casualties particularly at the battle of the Sittang River. You must remember that at that time the Chinese armies which were forming up around Toungoo had not been in action. Neither had the tanks who found it impossible to operate in the jungle. Thus the whole force of the Japanese drive had, up to now, been taken by this one division and the magnificence with which they fought may be judged by the fact that, without reinforcements and with insufficient air support they had forced the Japs to take longer to reach Pegu than the Japs had taken to conquer the whole of Malaya. The Glosters Regiment stationed at Rangoon and Mingaladon had not yet been in action. Their job it was to stop the Japs getting past the vital 21st mile crossroads until everything had gone through up the Prome Road and thereafter take up rearguard.

That, then, was roughly the position when at long last we received orders to withdraw our platoon from Z and transfer them to “Highland Queen” landing ground near Hmawbi on the west of the Prome Road. We got these orders on the evening of 27th February and the withdrawal was to be effected under cover of night. I was detailed to take out three lorries and a working party, organise the withdrawal and to install the platoon in their new position if possible before dawn the next day. There were all sorts of rumours flying around that the Japs had already cut the Pegu Road so I thought it might possibly be quite an adventure.

I decided that I would go out ahead with my orderly in my own car and pilot the small convoy as it was imperative that all vehicles should proceed without lights; and off we went at about 21.00 hours. The Glosters had outposts at intervals along the Pegu Road from 21st mile onwards and I stopped at each one to enquire whether the road was still clear further on. The first two outposts gave reassuring replies but the third “thought there was something going on further up”. However, I could not hear any firing so on we went, eventually arriving at Z at about 23.00 hours without incident. Actually the Japs were still about 20 miles the other side of Pegu so my anxiety was needless. We got cracking immediately dismantling the guns and loading up ammunition and equipment. With only three lorries available for the job it was necessary to make two or three trips before all our stuff had been transferred to Highland Queen and finally I returned to base camp about 10.00 the next day rather exhausted, having driven over 150 miles during the night without lights.

Even then, however, I was unable to get much sleep. We had an air raid during the morning and early in the afternoon we got orders to clear out of Mingaladon. This was on 28th February. We were then one of the very few units apart from the Glosters and the “last ditcher” demolition parties remaining south of 21st mile. The RAF had withdrawn from Mingaladon and the remaining units had also disappeared in a cloud of dust. Brigade HQ who had promised to let us have ten lorries suddenly discovered that they did not have enough lorries to move their own stuff, but, as I have already described, we had anticipated this and we were nevertheless able to get away all our guns, ammunition, supplies and equipment. It is significant that whereas the general evacuation of Rangoon had been accomplished over a week before, it had been carried out in such a panic that an enormous amount of stuff which could have been got away had people kept their heads, was left behind. Not so with us.

We used our lorries to ferry the guns and ammunition and all our heavy stuff to Insein railway station where we loaded them into railway wagons. We were lucky in getting these wagons hitched on to one of the last trains to leave. Meanwhile our boys at Highland Queen had been told by messenger to send their guns and ammunition in the two lorries we had left them to Hmawbi station where they too were loaded into the same train as it passed through on its way to Prome. The rest of our stuff we took with us by road. One thing which nearly broke our hearts was that, owing to a slight miscalculation in the carrying capacity of our motley collection of vehicles, we had to leave behind eight cases of beer. That, however, was all that we did leave and it was some consolation to know that nevertheless on our supplies lorry were six cases each of gin and whisky and the remaining twelve of our original twenty cases of beer, all of which, incidentally, we had acquired by means other than having to pay for it.

It was indeed a weird and wonderful collection of vehicles which finally lined up as our convoy, each vehicle loaded to capacity. There were eight lorries, six Jeeps, three motor cycles for DRs and six private cars. And so, on 1st March 1942 we set forth with orders to proceed to Magwe aerodrome some 300 miles northwards.

That ends the first section of my story. It is a convenient breaking off point and I am sending you this much in advance of the remaining instalments which are yet to be written, as, at the present rate of writing, you would otherwise be waiting an intolerable time for the full story. When we left Mingaladon I was firmly convinced that the more valuable items of my private property had been safely got away by the firm in accordance with their promise. This accounts for the fact that I made no attempts on my hurried visits to Rangoon after the civil evacuation to collect my stuff, which was, in any case, left by the firm locked in the office strong room. Thus I even lost such valuables as my gold watch (your 21st birthday present) which I could easily have got away had I suspected that the firm would let me down.

Encroaching for a moment on my next instalment, it so happened that our evacuation from Mingaladon marked the end of our AA Company as such. During our brief but hectic career we brought down two Jap fighters (unfortunately not by my platoon) and the Japs paid us tribute by never once making any attempt to come low enough for ground strafing. Up to the time of our withdrawal I was actually in the target area for no fewer than 30 bombings without being hit and some of my friends had already bestowed on me the title of “Chief Bomb Receptionist for Burma”.

My next instalment will deal with our journey northwards and my hectic six weeks in Mandalay.

Meanwhile my fondest love to you all,

Fred.

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