- Contributed by
- Patricia Pringle
- People in story:
- Fred Millem
- Location of story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 December 2005
The Evacuation of Mandalay
It would take a whole volume to describe all the interesting happenings at Myohaung, but I think I have written enough to give you a rough idea of what my life there was like. I have never worked so hard in my life as I did at Myohaung and I very seldom got back to Mandalay in time for dinner. I lived for the most part on two meals a day — breakfast and lunch — for, as I have said, Myohaung was too infested with cholera to risk eating there. Occasionally I was lucky and obtained an evening meal on one of the hospital trains which passed through fairly frequently. I got quite pally with one of the nurses on this train who used to bring me baskets of strawberries from Maymyo. Usually I left the station at about 1.30 a.m. although on some occasions I did not get away until 5.30 in the morning.
Naturally, all this did not have a very good effect on my health. About three days after I was blown up by the explosion at Mandalay, I was afflicted by the most agonising earache and I went completely deaf in my right ear. I also began to feel none too well and had I had time to go up to Maymyo for a proper examination I am pretty certain I would have been classed as unfit for duty. However, there was no time to think of reporting sick and fortunately I was kept so enormously busy that I had no time to worry about how I felt. I was able to get some tablets which I took in enormous quantities to deaden the pain in my ear and I was always so dead tired by the time I got to bed that not even my severe earache could keep me awake.
It was not until the final week at Myohaung that Movement Control HQ managed to find me a staff of an assistant RTO and two Sergeants but by that time things were working up to such a pitch that even having a staff did not reduce my hours of work. The thing I liked least about my job at Myohaung was the nightly drive back to Mandalay Fort in the early hours of the morning. There was a curfew every night at 8.00 p.m. and almost every night I had to find a new route home owing to the huge fires which were still breaking out all over the place. The Chinese themselves were very quick to open fire on the slightest suspicion and what with all the looters and dacoits about, I invariably drove with all windows open and my revolver ready on my lap. It was also no easy matter to avoid the innumerable bomb craters when driving without lights.
Talking about driving, the Austin 14 saloon which I brought up to Mandalay in place of my own car did not last very long. The self-starter konked out and I could not find a starting handle for it so, with the cheerful abandon which prevailed in those days as regards personal property, I discarded it. In its place I borrowed a Hillman Minx from a friend of mine who wanted to get it requisitioned by the Army. Before I could get it requisitioned, however, a half shaft broke so I gaily set fire to it to render it useless to the Japs. The same day I persuaded another civilian friend to part company with his very excellent Austin saloon in exchange for a first class compartment on my daily train to Myitkyina. Two days later the wretched Chinese stole this latest acquisition from Myohaung station but I managed to borrow another for a couple of days until my own CO gave me his magnificent 25 hp Wolesley when he went up to Myitkyina by river. At that time one had to obtain a special permit to get every two gallons of petrol and, there being no motor roads to India, cars were useless to those evacuating, so plenty were available for such as myself for whom a car was essential. I was placed on the “free list” for petrol so the petrol problem did not worry me.
Towards the end of April the situation went from bad to worse. The Japs were steadily advancing north of Yenangyaung and had also broken through on the central front. Then the news came that a Jap armoured column was advancing on Lashio on the Burma Road north east of Mandalay. There was practically nothing to oppose the Japs in that area and we had a hectic time diverting Chinese who were intended for the southern front, back to Lashio. That was one of the days I worked from about 9.00 a.m. until 5.30 a.m. the following morning. I was myself in constant touch with the Director of Movements at Maymyo and the last message I got that night was that the line was cut just above Maymyo. I knew then that the game was up as far as Mandalay was concerned as there was also nothing between Mandalay and the Japs on the central southern front. I never knew whether Japs or our own troops would be in the next train to arrive.
The evacuation of our remaining forces (apart from Chinese) from Maymyo and Mandalay started about 25th April. GHQ had already moved from Maymyo to Shwebo and the vital thing was to get everyone and everything either up the river by river steamer or safely across the Irrawaddy by the Ava bridge. This vital bridge carried the road and the railway line and was going to be blown up if the Japs arrived. The whole of my own unit (Burma Battalion) was ordered to embark at Mandalay Foreshore on the morning of 26th April (I am a bit hazy about actual dates during this hectic period) to proceed to Myitkyina by river steamer. Leaving my assistants to hold the fort at Myohaung I took the morning off to see them safely on board. Several of the Burma Battalion officers and about 100 of the men had, for the past two or three weeks, been manning and stoking the IF Company’s steamers in place of the proper crews who had run away and they had just returned from a rather perilous trip down to Magwe where they were fired on by the Japs who, unknown to the men on board, were then in possession of Magwe. So it was quite a reunion when the rest of the Battalion went on board at Mandalay to be taken to Myitkyina. Ironically enough the ship carrying our lads was the SS “Japan”.
That morning the Japs made a grave error of timing. A very large number of troops of all sorts were due to embark at the foreshore at about 11.00 a.m. At about 9.00 a.m. the Japs bombed the foreshore good and hearty but failed to hit any of the ships. Immediately after the bombing my CO asked me to drive down to the foreshore to see if everything was OK for embarkation as per schedule and this I did. The drive approaching the foreshore was rather horrible and I had to zig-zag all over the road to avoid running over the innumerable lumps of meat which had so recently been human beings. I will not upset your stomachs by describing the sights in detail It was the old story of masses of people caught in the open because there was no warning of the raid and, although the foreshore was undoubtedly a legitimate military objective, most of the victims were civilians. The Jap AP bombs certainly make a horrible mess of anyone in the vicinity and the trouble with them is that the shrapnel shoots straight along the surface of the ground in addition to flying upwards, so that anyone lying flat on the ground is still sliced into little pieces. This particular variety of Japanese bomb is so effective that not one unexploded one out of all the hundreds they dropped was found in Burma, so we still don’t know their secret. I think, from the fragments I have often examined, that they use a stick extension.
Later in the morning I saw my Battalion safely on board their steamer and, as I have already told you, my CO gave me his luxurious car as a parting gift. They all seemed genuinely sorry at having to leave me behind, even though they did not know what I knew about the hopelessness of the position of Mandalay. Jack Villiers, who had just been appointed Staff Captain at Movement Control HQ, was also left behind and together we took leave of the Battalion and our brother officers. Had the Japs come over then they would have had a much more successful raid because the foreshore and all the steamers were absolutely packed with thousands of troops.
Jack and I tried to cheer each other up as we drove back to deserted Mandalay. I must confess we were both rather down at heart, but we realised that it was Movement Control’s job to get everything away before we left ourselves. So back I went to Myohaung to organise the removal of the last trainloads of stores and supplies across the Ava Bridge. I think I can safely say that everything we had to move was got away before we ourselves finally left the appalling scene of stinking ruin and desolation which had been Mandalay.
It was during lunch (a meal eaten with our fingers out of what few tins we could find) on 28th April that I received orders that I was to take charge of a small convoy of the remaining Movement Control clerks and BORs to proceed to Shwebo at 16.00 hours. The other officers were to follow up next morning. My convoy consisted of one lorry and two private cars (apart from my own) and it was significant that this vital transport and all the petrol was provided by Jack and myself as being the remnants of our fleet which the AA Company had brought up from Mingaladon two months before. Under the back seat of my own newly acquired car I stored the last of our “secret reserve” of petrol — 20 gallons — and my tank was also full. The probability was that there would be no more petrol until we got to India so I was taking no chances. I also had a 20 gallon drum of petrol on the lorry and plenty of oil.
It was with a terrific sense of relief that I led my tiny convoy over the Ava Bridge and got safely on the right side of the Irrawaddy on the evening of 28th April. The Japs occupied the ruins of Mandalay on 2nd May and I believe we blew up the Ava Bridge the day after I crossed. As you probably know, after the Japs got Mandalay the situation got very confused (I still can’t sort it all out) and things happened with such incredible speed that by the end of the first week in May the Japs were everywhere in Burma and the Battle of Burma was lost. But I am racing ahead of my story again.
I ought to make it quite clear at this stage that, when I left Mandalay, I had no idea that the journey was to be the first stage of the evacuation to India. The intention was that Movement Control should establish its HQ at Shwebo and carry on from there. The situation deteriorated to such an extent in the following 48 hours, however, that by the time we assembled in Shwebo it became a case of getting to India as quickly as possible. The remnants of the heroic 17th Division and Bur. Division, who with negligible reinforcements coming in, had been battered by the Japs for nearly five months were retreating to the Chindwin River and once they crossed that river the game was up.
After crossing the Ava Bridge I found the road to Shwebo very congested with Chinese who had a few pieces of field artillery and appeared to be preparing to make a stand along the road. Then one of my cars broke down and what with the delay trying to repair it, we did not reach the outskirts of Shwebo until well after dark. I decided that it was hopeless to find accommodation for my men until daybreak so we all slept by the side of the road and moved into Shwebo early next morning. I found that the Staff Captain to whom I had to report was an old acquaintance of mine so we were all soon fixed up with quarters. I shared the SC’s room at AHQ, “A” Branch officers mess and that afternoon Jack Villiers and the remaining Movement Control Officers arrived from Mandalay with Major Skelton, another old friend, who was Assistant Director of Movements from Maymyo.
That night we received the glad news that Jack Villiers and myself were on the list of 90 officers detailed to leave at 06.30 the next morning to proceed direct to India. We were given typewritten copies of our programme which looked too good to be true. At 06.30 hours the following morning lorries would call for us and we would be taken to Ye-U station. From there we were to be taken to Monywa by train and at Monywa steamers would be awaiting our arrival to take us up the Chindwin to Kalewa, where we would again find lorries to take us straight through to India via Tamu and Imphal. In less than a fortnight we would be in Calcutta! The only snag was that owing to the road being not quite finished there would be one stage of about 30 miles which we would have to walk. We were therefore told not to take any more kit than we could carry on our backs. We need not bother to take any food because rations would be provided all along the route along which tens of thousands of evacuees had already got to India with ease and safety.
We were indeed in high spirits that night. Jack and I had brought up the remnants of our stock of whisky and we agreed that if ever an occasion in our lives deserved a celebration this was one. In a few hours we were to leave the land of death and destruction to enter a land of peace and plenty. We got right royally drunk and so did the other 20 odd officers who shared our small bungalow. I gaily gave away my car, my petrol, all the remainder of my kit and possessions, apart from what I could cram into my haversack and suitcase and what was left of my stock of liquor. Life seemed good. Little did we suspect that night what was in store for us! Little did I suspect that the dawning month of May 1942 would be the most horrible of my life.
We were up bright and early the next morning and got to the embussing point in good time. About 1,200 civilians, wives and families of troops were coming out with our party of 90 officers. They were to be looked after by a few officers specially detailed to do so. No armed troops were coming with us because, of course, our route was perfectly safe. The first development was the non-arrival of our lorries. Eventually only a few lorries turned up and the officers were told to make their own way to Ye-U. Jack and I managed to scrounge a lift from another officer who was going to Ye-U by private car.
On arrival at Ye-U there was no sign of a train. Incidentally, Shwebo was heavily bombed just after we left. In company with about half a dozen other officers Jack and I parked ourselves by the roadside near the station to await developments. About mid-day we were told that our train would arrive at 04.30 hours the next morning! We managed to scrounge some food of sorts in the village and made a fire by the roadside. Captain Joe Slade, lately SSO at Mandalay appointed himself head cook for our party and turned us out quite a good meal. We spent the afternoon lazing in the shade of a large tree.
Our train was eventually marshalled late in the evening and I went along to the station to bag a compartment for our little party. The station was, of course, in absolute chaos with the hundreds of evacuees fighting and scrambling to get on board this last train to be run from Ye-U. The RTO was flapping around helplessly — it was obviously his first experience of an “evacuee special”. It was, however, right up my street as I had had to deal with this sort of thing every day for the last month. I showed him how to go about the job and more or less took over. We packed all the evacuees in — about 75 to 100 in each goods wagon — and by midnight everyone was on board and the train moved.
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