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Make Me A Soldier, A Burma Soldier (Part Two)

by actiondesksheffield

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People in story: 
(Kohima/Imphal) Burma - Mandalay Road.
Location of story: 
16th Field Regiment R.A. 2nd Infantry Division - Captain (Retired) 14th Army.
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Contributed on: 
23 January 2006

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of D. Howard Woodcock, and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr. Woodcock fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The following has been transcribed from an audio recording of a talk (with slides), given to The Rotary Club.

Continued from Part One:



Anyway, we set off down the road and we’d got twelve miles to go to get down to where the Fifth Indian Division was, on this main road. When we got into the open plain, where they were, we surprised the Japs because we came up behind the Japs who were facing the Fifth Indian Division. We squeezed them out and they all started running. They were like ants, there were scores of Japs running towards a hill about three hundred yards away. They were swarming up this hill and they were really on the run, trying to get out of it. I had the best target I'd ever had that day. I’d got the whole regiment firing eighty-four rounds a minute into the hillside and moving it around. My two signallers were shooting Japs with their rifles and I was busy on the wireless directing artillery fire. It really was a great moment because we had met up with the West Yorks of the Imphal troops and the siege was lifted.

I’m missing a lot out because there is so much one can say about one’s experiences at these particular times. I do remember the Brigadier Commander of the artillery was roaring with laughter. He was so happy that we were being successful and he shouted to me, “Timber,” he knew me as Timber which was short for various other things. He said, “Timber, isn’t this a great day? What a wonderful day, we’ve been waiting for this day.” So then we were withdrawn out of the line. The Japs had gone and we were able to rest. The regiment was taken out of action and we got a bath. My diary tells me that I’d had my first bath for 10½ weeks. We were all absolutely filthy. We always tried to shave; I always insisted on my chaps shaving if they possibly could. No matter how dirty you are, if you have a shave you feel a lot better. There’s no fun in growing a great beard. Anyway, we had a bath. Our infantry had been decimated, and by that I mean they were down to a third of their number. They’d had killed or wounded, two thirds of their officers and they were then waiting for reserves coming up to reinforce them and to bring their battalions up to strength for another piece of the war, but the artillery, apart from the officers and the observation groups, hadn’t had too many casualties.

By this time, I’m a captain because a troop commander had been wounded and I got promoted. I was then officially, no longer the Battery Command Post Officer, but I’m a Troop Commander and that was how I remained for the rest of the war until the following May, nearly a year. I knew then that my life was always going to be with the infantry. We had officer casualties ourselves — we’d had several wounded and one or two killed.

We heard that we, the Sixteenth Field Regiment were going to go on loan to the twenty third Indian Division, and we’d have to cross the Imphal box. It was thirty miles across this defended box. We went right to the south, to the twenty third Indian Division, and we were then told that we were going to support an attack by the Mahratta Light Infantry, and it was to be a two company attack. One of our officers was going with the left hand company and I was going with the right hand company. The Mahrattas were very good troops, of course, they weren’t the same colour as us. We rubbed Kiwi shoe blacking into our faces. It didn’t do a very good job, we didn’t really look right. Never did I want to look dark so much before. We set off up this hill and there was a big artillery fire plan — quite a big Japanese position. We went up the hill; the artillery fire plan came down very heavily on the top and was going to continue for about half an hour. The infantry were gradually working their way up and the Company Commander asked me to take the company as near as I could to where the fire was coming down. We were going to attack a sort of knob on the end of a ridge, and the other company was coming up the outside of it, and we were going to get onto the saddle and attack it from the side. We got right up and as near as we could, so that when they went over the top, they were right close to the Japs. By this time, I was getting fairly experienced with artillery fire, and our own artillery fire was cutting the branches off the trees over our heads. I knew we were pretty close then, I knew our shells were dropping about forty yards away.

We met a lot of trouble — the Japs were also resisting the other company coming up the other side. We had a side view of what was going on. There was this bit of a hill at the end, and the Japanese were lined up behind it. We could see the other company coming up the other side and the Japs were lobbing grenades over the top of the hill, and there was a line of Japanese. A Mahratta corporal next to me with a bren gun, and from the hip with a big five hundred round magazine, he went down this line of Japs, and you know how you put a line of dominos together and you push the end one, and they all go down, they all went down like that; it was very encouraging.

There was a bunker at our end of the position, with machine guns in it, about forty yards from me. It was much too close to use my own guns, but with us, we had a F.O.O., a Forward Observation Officer from the tanks, because there was a tank on the hill, about eight hundred yards away and he was supposed to give fire orders to this tank, but both his signallers were killed and his wireless was knocked out. My wireless was working, but I was unable to direct our twenty five pounders onto the position because we were too close to our own shells. I got the wavelength of his tank, and as we were crouching down on the ground, I got onto his frequency and started giving his tank orders. I’d never done this before in my life. I gave them an aiming point, then I said, “Up a bit, down a bit, right a bit.” It was a very high velocity tank gun. We were trying to put these tank shells through the bunkers slits — it was like playing darts and trying to hit the bull’s-eye. Things were going quite well, but then the Japs started having a go at us and there were dust and bullets flying all over the place. Suddenly, there was a big swoosh next to me, and of course I got hit by a burst of machine gun fire, but thank God, it didn’t hit me straight; it ricocheted off the ground and the bullets spun into me. They went in like propellers. One of my signallers, Vincent Blunt said, “You’re hit.” I said, “Don’t be damn silly.” It was just like being kicked, I didn’t realise I’d been wounded. To this day he swears he put his finger into one of the holes and pulled a bullet out. I didn’t know what was really going on, but I was a bit worried by this time. The Company Commander knew I’d been hit, he was close by, and the other company by this time was withdrawing down the hill. He said, “I’m going to fight a rear guard action to get the wounded out, and those who can’t walk, I haven’t got enough stretchers……….” He said, “If you can walk, can you get my walking wounded down the hill?” I was glad to accept the offer of getting down the hill, so I gave my signallers instructions to stay near the company commander and help him with communications, and get down the hill as fast as they could. With them was a bombardier, my 2 1/c with me, he was a good guy who’d already won a military medal. The tank officer said, “I’ll help you out.” I put my arm round his shoulder and I stood up, when a bullet went between my legs then hit his legs, and so, we had a short conference and decided we’d crawl. We crawled down the hill a little and all these walking wounded were gathering there, the Mahratta soldiers. There was a corporal who looked as if he was a useful chap, so I gave him instructions to tell everybody to patch themselves up because in three or four minutes, I was taking them down the hill. I couldn’t do much for myself, I’d torn my trouser leg right down and pulled it up to hold myself together because both sides of my thigh were moving and I’d lost a lot of flesh and muscle all down one side. It wasn’t hurting too much.

We set off down the hill. I told them all to prepare to fight. I said, “You’ve got to carry your weapons and if you meet any Japs on the way down, we’ve got to fight our way down.”

I was thinking, “I’m glad I’m getting out of it and I was thinking about my mother. I knew what I was doing, but was probably a bit confused, anyway, we went down, and when we got to the bottom, there was this track and I sent a corporal on to get a Jeep ambulance to come and pick the other officer up. They picked us up and took us along. We were in the hands of the medics and I can tell you, the medical service was absolutely superb. We just relaxed and forgot everything. The morphia and the loads of sulphonamide powder, which I believe was protective from getting gangrene........I felt an arm across my shoulder and I realised someone was knealing by the stretcher. He said a few kind words and that I’d done a good job, and he said, “You’ll have to stand at the bar for a few weeks when you’re drinking.” He said, “When you get better, get back to the regiment.” That was my colonel.

When I got cleaned up in Imphal, they found another bullet in my leg, which I didn’t know I’d got. I went to hospital in Dacca and I was very well looked after, then I went on leave and eventually got graded A1, after about two months, because I’d got mostly fleshy type wounds, nothing important. Then I got posted to a depot, but I sent my colonel a telegram to explain that I was graded A1, posted to a depot — it was a court martial offence to return to my unit which I no longer belonged to — what were his instructions? I got a telegram back telling me to hitch hike to the regiment, which I did. I arrived at Dimapur and by this time, the regiment had been withdrawn, having done another two months hard fighting while I’d been away.

I came out of Dimapur, now I’m in the battle area and the rain’s coming down in sheets, and there was a landslide right in front of me, it just came down and an Indian truck had taken the brunt of this. There were two dead Indians there and an Indian driver who was still alive, but both of his legs were tremendously crushed. I had to deal with that problem straight away. I was soon back in the war area, but
it wasn’t a war injury. I sent the second vehicle back to the hospital for an ambulance and a doctor, and I put tourniquets on this fellow’s groin to try and stop the bleeding; tearing material up and putting stones in it. Was that the way to do it, big stones and pulled them tight — until the ambulance came, pushing with my hand to try to stop the bleeding. He died later that night I heard.

Just before Christmas of 44, we went into action again following the Eleventh East African Division. They had forced a bridge-head over the Chindwin, about a hundred miles further south, and the second division was going to go over in a big attack on Mandalay. We had one Indian division on the left and another division coming round the bottom. There was a tremendous encircling movement to capture Mandalay.

I was thrown in at the deep end again; I went out with the Royal Berks on Christmas Day and we hit the Japanese at lunch time, and we had a big battle. A little plane came by towing a banner that said, “Happy Christmas to the Fourteenth Army.” You can imagine the language from the Royal Berks.

Then I went out on a big hook with the D.L.I. and with me was a major from the Ninety-ninth Field regiment, so we had a representative from two field regiments — and his name was Arthur Stewart Liberty who died recently, chairman of Liberty’s. When he was introduced to Lord Mountbatten before the battle started, he asked him what his name was, he said Liberty, he said, “What’s your job in life?” He said, “I’m a draper sir.” He went on to shake hands with the next man and he hadn’t a clue who he was talking to. He was already a director of ‘Liberty’. Anyway, we went round and we hit trouble on the second day. We were crossing a dry riverbed and I was going behind the leading company, and the Japs opened up from the other side and caused a lot of casualties, stretcher bearers were shot down and so the artillery was needed. That was why we were there. Immediately, I was able to get a smokescreen down over the Japanese. When they got back, we set up an attack and we fired an artillery fire plan on the Japanese position, then went across. We’d nearly completed our encircling move, and I’d got my bren carrier with me Stuart Liberty had his bren carrier with him. For two days, mine had been in the lead, but on the last day, he said, “We’re nearly up to the road, mine can go in front.”

We’d gone about fifty yards when his carrier went up on a mine. His driver was killed and both of his signallers were wounded. We rolled him in a blanket and put him on my carrier, and we dropped him off at the field ambulance. To this day, my driver comes to reunion and he always recalls how lucky he was that day, that my carrier wasn’t in the lead, and that is the luck of war.

Anyway, we took this body and dropped it off at the field ambulance, and no sooner had we done that, we were machine gunned by the Japanese Zeros. You’ve probably seen pictures of people on a road with planes coming down with machine guns going and everybody diving into the ditch. I beat a brigadier into a ditch and he landed on top of me. He apologised most profusely, but I didn’t mind that because I got into the ditch first. A lot of fighting took place after that and I did a tremendous amount of walking with the infantry. We fought the big battle of Kyauksi. It was a set piece battle and when we eventually did it, it was one of those battles where the power of the British Army came to the fore. We’d done a lot of patrolling; we knew the Japanese positions intimately and when we went into the attack with flame throwers, tanks, four abreast behind, the infantry all walking with the tanks, coming overhead we had Hurri-bombers, we had Typhoons firing their rockets and the cartridges from their machine guns were bouncing off our tin hats. We went through this village and wiped the whole place flat. It was so hot we could hardly walk through it. We had nine Lancashire Fusiliers killed that day and twelve wounded, and we killed over two hundred Japs. Once the weight of the British machine got going, the Japs were on the run, they hadn’t got the equipment, and so we really got them sorted out.

Continued in Part Three:



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