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15 October 2014
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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 9icon for Recommended story

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Subedar Shambu Nath IE, Mayor of Colombo George R de Silva and Mrs de Silva, Lt Herbert Eastwood RE, Capt Alan Shaw RE, Capt RE Dawson RA, Mr and Mrs Douglas Galloway, Sapper Ahmed Din, Judge Lionel and Mrs Vera Horwill, Lt-Gen (later Sir) William Slim
Location of story: 
Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bangalore, Deccan, Madras
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 November 2004

Wellawatta, Colombo, 1943 - Invited to lunch at the Hindu VCO's Mess my host, Subedar Shambu Nath IE, joins me in a cooling paddle in the adjacent Indian Ocean.

Sports and games for the Indian troops were encouraged. We officers always joined in and I remember playing football in bare feet on the turf of a Colombo playing field with 345 Company troops versus a local Sinhalese team. Neither the troops nor the local side were accustomed to play in boots so we British had to follow suit. Hockey was always a great favourite with our Indian troops. They were very good at it.

On 17th July 1943 De La Salle School Old Boys Union, Mutwal, near Colombo, sponsored the School annual Sports Meet. The Mayor of Colombo George R de Silva presided and Mrs de Silva distributed the prizes. According to my copy of the Programme, the 25 field event judges included Herbert Eastwood and me, Captain R E Dawson of the Royal Artillery and two British civilian friends, Douglas and Kay Galloway. We five were the only British expatriates. The whole day was run very enjoyably by the pupils, teachers and parents, just as at a large school in Britain but in tropical weather!

Immediately after the Sports Meet I set off for India, accompanied by my bearer Ahmed Din, to attend a three week Company Commanders course at the headquarters of the Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners, Bangalore.

It was an eight hour journey by rail to Talamanaar on the northwest coast of Ceylon. Then followed a two hour, 22 mile steamer trip across the Manaar Strait, parallel with the chain of islands known as Adam's Bridge to the Indian ferry terminal of Danushkodi. Then came the boat train for the 280 miles to Madras, with a further 200 mile rail journey to Bangalore, capital of Mysore State. Situated on the Deccan plateau at an altitude of 3,000 feet.

At Bangalore the climate is sufficiently like that of Britain for similar crops to be grown and for the first and last time during service with the Indian Army I was afflicted with hay fever. This apart, I thoroughly enjoyed the three weeks with the Madras Sappers and Miners.

I shared a small bungalow with a very pleasant Irish major of the Ceylon Engineers who taught me the basics of water divining or 'dowsing'. In peacetime a civil engineer he had discovered quite by chance that he had this gift. Hazel twigs are not essential. Any smooth barked flexible forked twig will do, or thick copper wire. In Ceylon he had systematically tested every sapper in his unit for dowsing ability and found that 7% had it strongly and around 30% could have developed it if they wished.

In the Royal Engineers anyone with proven ability can claim Trade Pay as a Water Diviner. This is because armies in remote areas need to find water by any method which works.

We had our meals in the grand old Officers Mess of the QVO Madras S & M. Behind each officer's chair stood his bearer wearing a white cotton uniform and puggarree or turban with a waistbelt in the red white and blue stripes of the Corps of Indian Engineers.

At breakfast in front of each place setting was a fine newspaper stand of polished wood and brass. It was normal to read the Hindustan Times or other Indian newspaper while eating breakfast. If you had a hangover from the previous evening you didn't have to speak to anyone else if you didn't feel like it! At luncheon and dinner everyone was as sociable as normal.

One weekend while on the course I went down to Madras and stayed with Judge Lionel and Mrs Vera Horwill. Vera, a missionary doctor, was an elder sister of Marjory's oldest friend. Lionel, the last British judge in India, was later knighted and after Indian independence retired to Australia.

During the course our second wedding anniversary took place, on the 26th July 1943. As arranged with Marjory before leaving England I kept a mental tryst with her at midday, the moment of our wedding, having worked out beforehand the allowance to be made for time zones. Because of the trip from Ceylon I got it wrong and made the mental effort an hour early, discovering my mistake later.

I had done the same thing the previous year in Jhansi. Several weeks later, on both occasions Marjory wrote saying that she had felt me thinking about her, an hour early. Throughout my years in the Indian Army it was never possible to telephone home. At first it took six months to receive a reply to a letter. Later we had 'Airgraphs' on one side of which one could write a letter and/or draw a picture. It was subject to censorship like a letter. The Airgraph was then photographed down to 35 millimetre format and flown to the UK by the RAF.

The Madras Sappers & Miners are unique in the Indian Army in that they recruit exclusively from non-caste Madrassi untouchables. Each man recruited and his family immediately became life members of the Quinsap caste of Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers & Miners. As a result the troops had tremendous morale and were very proud of themselves, their regiment and their caste.

While on the course our officer class went by train to Shimoga Jungle Training School, about 170 miles North West of Bangalore, living in deep rainforest jungle, for two or three days. Here we learned how to survive on the products of the rain forest. 'Jungle' in India simply means any kind of wilderness.

The main part of the course, at QVO HQ Bangalore, was on every aspect of running a Field Company of the Sappers and Miners including issue of a field service pocket book newly written for the purpose.

This stressed the importance of Officers Commanding writing a job specification for every officer and other rank in the Company and ensuring that each individual at every level had to learn not only his own but that of the rank immediately above. This was to ensure that in event of casualties the Company would continue to operate down to the last man.

By 1943 the tide of war with Japan had subtly changed. On land the Japanese Army was still dominant in Burma and elsewhere but the Japanese Navy, which in 1942 had attacked Ceylon, had soon after received a setback at the Battle of the Coral Sea and been significantly defeated at the decisive Battle of Midway in June 1942.

Some time after my return from Bangalore Ceylon Army Command ordered 345 Company to withdraw its Sappers in rotation from our urgent floating bridge building programme for annual weapons training. The construction work was continued by our five hundred civilian boat builders. The organisation of this retraining was added to my normal administrative duties.

Just as in Field Companies the Works Services units had to be able to fight as infantry in a last resort. As well as the usual route marching and weapon training we were introduced to a new battle drill, designed to train each man to react automatically to enemy fire while advancing on foot through hostile country.

Each individual in a fifteen man Engineer Sub-Section (corresponding to an Infantry Section) learned a specific combat team duty (observer, rifleman, grenade thrower, Bren gunner) and how, if fired upon while on the march, to take cover and, under the Sub-Section commander, to adopt one of a number of simple attack manoeuvres culminating in combined rifle and bayonet attack with covering fire from the Bren gunner. At that time it was a novelty.

At the Colombo rifle ranges we finally practiced these movements using a tripod mounted Bren gun firing live ammunition in fixed line mode, to give experience of covering fire to a final bayonet charge of troops who had crawled some distance under cover to carry out a flank attack on the enemy source of fire. Fortunately no one was killed! The young Indian troops were very keen on this fighting role, although of course their main function was that of engineering tradesmen.

345 Company was then ordered to relinquish the Beira Lake Base Workshops and move 1,600 miles north, as the crow flies, to join General Bill Slim's 14th Army and set up similar Base Workshops at Dimapur, the Manipur Road railhead for the 14th Army's central front. Our actual route was somewhat longer.

So in November 1943, having hastily embarked 345 Indian Workshop & Park Coy I E on board the SS Medina, a former pilgrim ship, we sailed out of Colombo harbour to Madras en route for Assam. She was larger than the 'Maharajah', which was just as well as we were making a longer voyage. As we sailed out of Colombo harbour we discovered, too late, that in the haste of departure our stock of anti-tank mines had been loaded at the very bottom of the ship's hold. We hoped that calm weather would prevent us being 'hoist by our own petards!'

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