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15 October 2014
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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 11

by Alan Shaw

Nambhor Forest, Dimapur, Assam 1943/44 - I became surrogate mother to an orphaned, unweaned, muntjac fawn (Assamese barking deer).

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Lt Herbert Eastwood RE, Major Philip R Eden RE, Lt-Gen(later Sir) William Slim
Location of story: 
Bay of Bengal, Madras and Dimapur,Assam.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3260530
Contributed on: 
11 November 2004

Up to about 1200 A.D. Dimapur was an ancient capital of the Cachari and Ahom kings whose traces remain in the form of a ruined fort of some magnitude as well as a number of large “tanks” or reservoirs. On a lawn in ancient Dimapur Fort stand 64 huge stone monoliths, up to 18 feet high, arranged in 4 rows of 16, and believed to be phallic symbols. They were restored at the order of Lord Curzon when he was Viceroy.

The fort was occupied by H Q 253 L of C Sub Area and also by No.3 British troops Transit Camp. Early in 1944 when the Japanese advanced, British nursing sisters in Imphal were temporarily withdrawn to Gauhati via the Dimapur Transit Camp. In anticipation of their arrival an order appeared on 253 L of C Sub Area HQ noticeboards:- “....the area adjacent to this headquarters will cease to be referred to as Penis Park”!

Pending the setting up of our workshops and other accommodation our neighbours-to-be, No.2 Engineer Stores Base Depot at Milestone 3 accommodated us. This was a typical Nambhor Forest site dominated by huge trees with buttressed roots and undergrowth so fast growing that access paths needed to be cleared twice a year to prevent the jungle reclaiming its own.Wild life abounded, some heard more often than seen. Monkeys, tree rats (rather like squirrels but black and white) deer, tigers and leopards were all known to be around but usually nocturnally. This was a game reserve and the Warden still made his presence felt. It was strictly forbidden to shoot any wild animal. Nevertheless accidents did happen.

The Pathan Naik in charge of our Quarter Guard was on one occasion, unable to resist a dawn sighting of a deer crossing the road and shot it dead. Now faced with the prospect of disciplinary action he presented it clandestinely to our officers mess cook. It was not until we had eaten the delicious meat that evening that compliments to the cook took an interrogatory turn and the story came out. It was decided to say nothing but for our Subedar Shambu Nath to warn the Naik not to do it again.

We had arrived at Dimapur just before Christmas 1943 but we officers were so fully occupied in organising the bringing forward of vehicles, workshop operating equipment and stores to Dimapur that Christmas was quite overlooked. I recall during a roadside halt on one of our many convoying trips suddenly realising that it was Christmas Day! It was a dusty 200 mile journey up the Assam Trunk Road via Nowgong and Numaligarh, the junction with a new road to Golaghat and Dimapur. At the beginning of the campaign there had been no road connection from the Assam Valley to Dimapur and its adjacent Manipur Road railway station.

During our construction period 345 Company officers were accommodated in capacious ridge tents near No.2 Engineer Base Store Depot Officers Mess. I occupied one of these, big enough to accommodate an office desk, two or three chairs and camp bed. At one side a canvas door gave access to a small lean-to tent with tin bath wash basin and “thunderbox”. Because of the torrential monsoon rains all tents were pitched over wooden floors raised well off the ground, and entered by a flight of wooden steps. When the monsoon arrived we understood why, but by then we had moved into our own newly built bamboo “bashas”.

Shortly after our arrival a gang of itinerant Nepalese woodcutters presented me with a tiny fawn which had lost its mother. It was a Muntjac or barking deer which we named “Bambi”. It was unweaned and no one had yet managed to persuade it to feed. I slightly warmed some “Carnation” tinned milk diluted 50% with water and achieved success. I became Bambi’s surrogate mother.

Bambi lived in the tent with me and for the first week or two I got very little sleep. Two or three times a night as I lay on my low camp bed I was butted in the ribs until I got up to light a Primus stove and heat milk and water. One night six months later when the little deer had taken to sleeping in a pile of brushwood beside 345 Company Officers Mess, Bambi was noisily killed and borne off by either a leopard or a tiger.No one awakened by the unearthly sounds was disposed to confront the intruder, the smell of whose disagreeable breath penetrated each bamboo hut as it padded menacingly by.

Our first task in the jungle area allotted by the Garrison Engineer to 345 Coy was to organise the clearing of undergrowth and the felling of trees sufficiently for two very large steel framed, corrugated iron clad workshop sheds, a power station with three diesel electric generators, and enough thatched bamboo huts to accommodate half a dozen officers and 150 soldiers, together with cookhouses, water supply, ablution benches and trench and borehole latrines. The latter seemed a favourite haunt of snakes and the occasional tarantula spider. In the hothouse climate of Assam all forms of life abounded.

One of the two large sheds housed our sawmill and woodworking shop. Its equipment included four 22 Horsepower Wadkin combined electric circular saw and planing machines, bandsaws and other necessary woodworking equipment and workbenches.The other workshop housed eight electrically blown blacksmiths forges, a foundry capable of casting five hundredweights of metal and a wide variety of metal working machinery too big to be carried by the mobile workshop lorries of the nearby 607 Indian Electrical and Mechanical Coy I E..

Repair and maintenance work in an operational area such as ours was graded according to complexity as:- 1st Line, by the plant operator or driver, 2nd Line by E and M Coy mobile workshops, 3rd Line by 345 Coy Base Workshops. As well as 3rd Line maintenance, operation of both fixed and mobile plant within the base as far out as Nichugard Gorge at Milestone 9 was the responsibility of Base Workshops and included small diesel electric generators and transmission lines, ice making plants, a 200 ton refrigeration store, 19 steam road rollers and a number of diesel rollers, diesel engined stone crushers, and a couple of two foot gauge railways to carry continuous supplies of boulders from the Dhansiri River to crushers at the roadside making road chippings

607 Indian Electrical and Mechanical Coy I E which I later was to command had similar responsibilities forward beyond Nichugard up to Shenam Pass near the Burma frontier and rearwards to Gauhati, Shillong and Goalpara. 345 Coy, along with very many other E and M units was raised in 1942 by No.l Works Services (E and M) Group, Indian Engineers, Lahore.The Commandant was Lt Col Veitch R E of the Bengal Sappers and Miners. 607 Coy was recruited mainly from Madrassis. The E and M units of the Royal Engineers and Indian Engineers are often confused with units of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and their Indian counterparts IEME who dealt with repair and maintenance of guns as well as fighting and other vehicles.

Royal Engineer and Indian Engineer E and M units on the other hand provided, in remote areas, electrical and mechanical services as an essential part of the infrastructure of the army. In the European theatre of war much would have been found from existing civilian organisations. When early in 1940 I was posted from 142 OCTU RE there was only one E and M Coy in the British Army. In the Indian Army by 1943 there were very many.

Three months later, General Bill Slim’s 14th Army invasion of Burma was pre-empted by the Japanese 15th Army’s strike through the Naga Hills towards India, its ultimate aim the capture of the 14th Army’s major bases at Imphal and Dimapur. Capture of Dimapur in particular would have been a crushing blow for the Allied forces, simultaneously depriving 14th Army of its main Advanced Base and cutting the metre gauge railway line to the U.S.-Chinese forces based in Northern Assam

Fortunately, Lieutenant General Sato, GOC of the Japanese 31st Division charged with taking Kohima on his way to Dimapur was obsessed with the need to capture Kohima before moving on. The delay imposed on him by the gallant defenders of Kohima and their reinforcement by airlifted 14th Army units from the Arakan Front and India caused him to run out of supplies which he had depended on capturing from Kohima and Dimapur. In March 1944 General Slim visited Dimapur Base to check on the resources available to meet a Japanese attack on it. Asking the Brigadier commanding the Base for the total ration strength the reply was “45,000, near enough” and when he asked “How many soldiers can you scrape up out of that lot” the reply was ‘I might get 500 who know how to fire a rifle!” Possibly the Brigadier did not know exactly how many armed troops he had.

In a remarkably short time our Engineer Base Workshops were established and in full operation. On 28th and 29th March 1944 the advancing Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions cut the Imphal Road in two places, south of Mao Songsang (Milestone 66) and Kangpokpi (Milestone 106) and the Kohima and Imphal garrisons were under siege.It was expected that the Japanese would head for Dimapur. and but for the gallant Kohima garrison, they would have done so. Not only was the Base vital for 14th Army but as the Japanese carried only a limited amount of supplies they depended on capturing our stocks of food, vehicles, supplies, arms and ammunition. Fortunately for us the Japanese general attacking Kohima stayed too long, ran out of supplies and had to retreat.

While our workshops continued to work at top pressure we nightly manned weapon pits in the workshop area. To our normal work was added the requirement of XXXIII Corps which had been brought forward to protect the Base, and raise the sieges of both Kohima and Imphal, the latter being the HQ of IV Corps. One afternoon we had an emergency call from CRE 110. A squadron of Lee-Grant tanks had been brought forward into the base on their way to Kohima. It was known that the Japanese were using anti-tank mines in which the explosive charge was contained in black cloth bags with magnets fixed into the corners. It was their habit to approach tanks under cover of night and attach these, using the magnets to secure the mines on the top of the engine compartment, the weakest point in the tank’s armour.

We were required immediately to improvise protective cages of expanded metal (“XPM”) on wooden frameworks to shield the engine compartments. Once in place it was believed that the airspace between the XPM and the armour would form a cushion to prevent penetration by mines clinging to the XPM. We worked day and night on this task until it was completed and the tanks, (possibly 149th R.A.C.?) then moved on to Kohima. One may have collided in the darkness with one of our steam rollers parked at the roadside near Nichugard. Although Kohima garrison was relieved in the nick of time, fierce fighting continued and the road to Imphal was not re-opened until 23rd June.

After the relief of Kohima on 18th April we welcomed home two of our British technical Staff Sergeants who had been temporarily seconded to the CRE Kohima and become part of the besieged garrison.Although they had survived physically they were badly shaken and we shuddered at their accounts of some of their experiences. They witnessed a young Japanese officer get out of his slit trench, exhort in English the besieged garrison to surrender to the invincible Japanese Army and underline the point by placing a grenade against his chest, killing himself for his Emperor.

A few weeks after the raising of the siege I visited Kohima having been told that upside down on part of the battlefield was a steam roller which although damaged had a much needed injector intact. This, along with one taken off another roller lying in the jungle on the Golaghat road I needed to make a steam locomotive in Manipur Road Base operational.

Even then the scene at Kohima was chaotic. What had been a forest had been completely shattered by gunfire, here and there broken trees bore the tatters of green silk supply parachutes and the ground was pockmarked by shell holes. This was all that remained of what had been an attractive little hill station. Near the upturned steam roller were the decomposing remains of a couple of Japanese soldiers, half buried in a weapon pit, forgotten as 14th Army pursued the Japanese up the Imphal Road.

Back at 345 Coy’s Officers Mess we had a traditional Indian experience. Having by this time stopped overnighting in or near our weapon pits in case of attack we had reverted to sleeping in our individual semi-detached bashas, but with loaded pistol under the pillow and clothes and webbing belts etc inside the mosquito net, ready for instant use. After a few weeks of broken nights we were all weary.

Herbert Eastwood’s bedroom adjoined mine through a woven bamboo partition. One brilliantly moonlit night Herbert awakened to see in the moonlight a snake coiled on his chest. As he instinctively raised his hand to strike it away it bit him in the palm of the hand.

I in turn was awakened by .an unearthly cry from Herbert -”A snake - I’ve been bitten by a snake ..” and a great commotion ensued as he struggled out of bed through his mosquito net, and rushed out of his room into mine.We were both still only half awake..He was in an acute state of shock. So was I!. Still half asleep I knelt up in bed, groping through the mosquito net for the light switch on the adjacent wall. Behind me I felt something cold slither across my bare legs. It felt exactly like a snake. In my half awake, confused state, this time I too shouted with fright, convinced that the snake had come into my bed. In fact my trousers, kept close at hand for emergency had fallen off the bed dragging their attached braces across my legs.. We were experiencing a half awake nightmare together.g nightmare together!.

Together we rushed outside determined to outpace the snake or snakes which seemed to be around. Together we rushed down the path to the workshop road, leaping and jumping half naked in the brilliant moonlight. Snakes are timid reptiles normally harmless unless cornered. Try telling that to some one who has just ben bitten!

When we had pulled ourselves together we went to Philip Eden’s basha nearby to borrow his station wagon to rush Herbert to hospital, knowing we might have less than half an hour before onset of snake poison. Philip drove us at breakneck speed to 66 British General Hospital four miles away. In the back of the wagon as we lurched about were Herbert, 345 Coy’s Indian Medical Service Jemadar doctor and myself. I was trying to hold Herbert’ s open hand steady while the doctor slashed the obligatory three deep cuts across the bite area on his palm.We arrived at the hospital in acute disarray - pyjamas and jungle green, blood spattered all over the place.

The duty sister was disconcertingly cool - she made the usual demand to see the snake to identify the required anti-venom! Herbert was duly injected, was very ill for two or three days but fortunately recovered. The incident may have triggered my one month’s annual leave, it was certainly well overdue!

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