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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 10

by Alan Shaw

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Mrs Rajamanikum, Lt John N Elisha IE
Location of story: 
From Ceylon to Dimapur, Assam
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 November 2004

Published by courtesy HMSO Assam 1943 The Amingaon - Pandu train ferry across the mile wide Brahmaputra was a bottleneck in the metre-gauge rail system serving the British-Indian 14th Army Central Front Manipur Road railhead at Dimapur and the American/Chinese Front railhead at Ledo.

To be on board and at sea was pleasantly relaxing after the pressures of hand-over in Ceylon. I was now speaking Urdu reasonably fluently. One of the difficulties in the rapid expansion of the Indian Army was that all the young British officers had to learn Urdu simultaneously with learning the unaccustomed procedures of the Indian Army, and in an extreme climate. We were under pressure from every direction.

The voyage coincided with one of the Hindu festivals. Indian Army units neglected no opportunity for a tamasha or feast. Officers and men sat down together to a festive meal of curried goat, dhal and chupattis, followed by sweetmeats. all to a background of Indian music played on Indian versions of the accordion, recorder and drums or tablas.A number of Royal Air Force doctors, our fellow passengers on board, were invited to join in but tactfully refused. Newly arrived from the U.K.they explained that they had not yet developed the necessary anti-bodies to avoid “Delhi Belly”!

As on our previous voyage we were escorted by a small warship of the Royal Indian Navy, probably a minesweeper. Our S.S. “Medina” was a bigger ship than the S.S.“Maharajah” in which we had sailed from Cochin in 1942, and carried on the poop a fair sized anti-submarine gun with a naval gun crew. Once out of sight of land the ship’s Captain ordered his gun crew to target practice. With his permission we took the opportunity to exercise 345 Company’s Bren gunners in anti aircraft mode, using as targets kites made by some of the Indian troops. We even exercised our “Boys” anti-tank rifles without dislocating any shoulders. Despite its heavily padded butt the Boys rifle with its 0.5 inch armour piercing bullet and heavy recoil had to be fired with great care. It was possible to receive a dislocated shoulder.

On arrival in Madras we accommodated the troops in large barracks near Fort St George. The officers mess was set up in the Free Masons’Hall, a fine edifice on the bank of Madras’s Cooum River. The ceremonial hall was our common dormitory. Inlaid in the tessellated floor were Masonic symbols which , worried our Indian bearers as they associated them with black magic. The acoustics of the hall were just right for our Columbia wind-up portable gramophone, incessantly playing two new records, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and “You are my sunshine”, various Vera Lynn records and some classical music.

One evening shortly after arrival we walked along to the Connemara Hotel in Mount Road for a drink. Emerging into the darkness two or three hours later we found the approaches ankle deep in torrential rain, disguising the presence of some local defence weapon pits at the roadside. One of us had to be pulled out of six feet of water. But we were in merry mood!

By the following morning the Freemasons Hall was marooned by the flooding. Using four of our tin baths we improvised a raft in order to reach the road to the barracks. Earlier in the year (August 1943) huge floods in Bengal’s Damodar Valley put coal mines out of action and interrupted Calcutta rail approaches.The resultant traffic dislocation and coal shortages on the Indian railways caused the British Indian Army’s plans for advance into Burma during the 1943/44 dry weather to be curtailed.

Meanwhile, 345 Coy was now detained in Madras awaiting onward rail transport. We improvised further military training programmes for our troops.The Quartermaster at Fort St George lent heliograph equipment for the team of signallers I had earlier personally taught on the Ceylon beaches. They now daily transmitted and received signals between the roof top of the Madras barracks and the summit of St Thomas’s Mount a few miles away.

Tradition states that Christianity was brought to Madras by St Thomas the Apostle who was later martyred on the Mount. A highlight for our officers during our enforced stay in this pleasant city was a delightful entertainment in the home of Mrs Rajamanikum, an aunt of our Indian Kings Commissioned Officer Lieut. John Elisha IE. It was our first experience of sophisticated Indian society and we thoroughly enjoyed the occasion.

Around mid December we re-embarked for the tortuous rail journey to Manipur Road, Assam. Our train headed north on the five feet six inch broad gauge rails of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, hauled by a giant “Baltic”4-6-4 steam locomotive. A bonus was the invitation of the driver to ride on the footplate for the first few hours of the journey. A very likeable and eloquent Anglo Indian, wearing a white kerchief, he looked like a member of the cast of “The Pirates of Penzance”. In those days of the British Raj Anglo Indians traditionally occupied key jobs on the railways throughout India and were very proud of their responsibilities.

Two Indian firemen fed coal to the furnace of the iron monster. Wedged into the handrails on either side of the boiler, to be cooled by the airflow, were several “chattis” of porous clay, providing drinking water for the engine crew. Conditions on the footplate in the humid climate of the Madras coast even in December approached those of a Turkish bath. Our train bypassed Calcutta to emerge on to the Eastern Bengal Railway, also broad gauged, running 300 miles northwards to Siliguri, railhead for Darjeeling and its famous two feet gauge “toy railway” but this was not our destination. We had entered the lines of communication (or “L of C”) to the Burma front.

The North West Frontier was the traditional invasion route into India. The British Indian Army had always orientated its bases and lines of communication towards that direction. The North East Frontier of India with Burma had been ignored. Because of the geographical obstacles to east-west movement, the heavy rainfall, the malarial nature of the country and the absence of all-weather roads it was regarded as impregnable.

The Japanese invasion of Burma triggered rapid development of bases, airfields and lines of communication on a vast scale, orientated towards the hitherto neglected North East Frontier. The main L of C obstacle was the Brahmaputra. It originates as the Tsangpo river in western Tibet and flows due east for about 900 miles. Turning south it leaves Tibet, emerging through the eastern Himalayas into north east Assam, about 80 miles west of the Burma frontier.

Turning due west it flows for 300 miles down the Assam Valley, veers south for 160 miles to its confluence with the Ganges and after a further 65 miles enters the Bay of Bengal through the Ganges Delta. Slow moving and unbridged throughout its 600 mile length in India it has an annual rise and fall of twentyfive feet and can change its course by half a mile each year. It isolates what was Assam and East Bengal from the rest of India.

At the time of the war with Japan motor vehicles could only enter Assam by conveyance on the Eastern Bengal broad gauge railway from Calcutta north to Santahar (173 miles) or Parbatipur (233 miles) At either station they would then be transshipped on to a single line metre gauge railway. Stopping as necessary at various stations to let oncoming traffic pass, the metre gauge train would wend its way slowly along the north bank of the Brahmaputra, first to Bongaigon where vehicles could dismount for a 20 mile road journey to the Jogighopa-Goalpara vehicle ferry.

At Goalpara they entered the all weather, second class Assam Trunk Road to Gauhati, Jorhat, and Ledo. Alternatively they could continue on rail to the Amingaon - Pandu wagon ferry and pick up the Assam Trunk Road at Pandu.Troops, animals and heavy stores had to continue from Pandu on the Bengal and Assam Railway’s metre gauge line to 14th Army’s Central Front Advanced Base at Manipur Road, or beyond to Tinsukia for the American-Chinese Northern Combat Area Command base at Ledo.

There was a spur road from Jorhat to Golaghat but the river at Golaghat was unbridged.There was thus no road for the 55 miles to Manipur Road which at first depended entirely on the metre gauge single line from Pandu. At Lumding 30 miles south a junction with the Hill Section offered a limited supplementary supply route from the B and A system supplying the Arakan front.

The latter was supplied partly by sea from Calcutta to Chittagong. North from Calcutta were two broad gauge spurs to river ports at Goalundo and Sirajgunj. These were served by stern wheel paddle steamers plying up and down the river.Their numbers had been depleted by many being sent to Iran prior to the Japanese invasion of Burma. Again from Santahar, a metre gauge spur turned south to the Tistamukh-Bahadurabad wagon ferry, giving rail access to the B and A Railway southern network.All these routes, with petroleum pipelines, plus 200 airfields, had quickly to be developed and reinforced to supply 14th Army’s Central front beyond Imphal and the American forces extending the Ledo Road into northern Burma to intersect the original Burma Road supplying General Chiang Kai Shek in China.

The main body of 345 Coy with its lighter equipment and motor vehicles trans shipped at Santahar for the slow 260 mile metre gauge journey along the north bank of the Brahmaputra to the Amingaon- Pandu railway wagon ferry. I remained behind with a small loading party to trans ship the heavier workshop equipment and make up another train shared with the bulldozers of an American construction unit on its way to the Ledo Road.At the tail end of our train was a composite guard’s van and third class coach with rudimentary latrine. It was mainly used to store 345 Company rations and personal kit. In the small hours of a moonless night our train set off.

Standing on the lineside to ensure that everyone was on board I waited until the train started to roll before hastily climbing up into the open door of the carriage. Grabbing at a sack of atta flour, the raw material for our chupatties, my open hand encountered a scurrying mass of large brown cockroaches. My Indian sappers and the Americans were riding on the open wagons. I soon joined them!

The 260 mile journey from Santahar along the north bank of the Brahmaputra river to Amingaon took nearly 30 hours. In daylight the American bulldozer crews sat high up on the seats of their bulldozers each with rifle at the ready, shooting at will at the plentiful wild bird and animal life disturbed by the noise of our passage. As the country was also teeming with Indian villagers tending their crops and livestock they too were at risk.

With no American officer on the train, my objections were totally ignored. The train comprised mainly low loading “well” wagons with small end-platforms. On one of these I set up my “safari” camp bed and as the sun set retired to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train and unaccustomed coolness of the air. A long way ahead the steam locomotive pulled us slowly through the starlit night. It was the beginning of the very pleasant but shortlived dry, cold weather of Assam with a night temperature of about 55 degrees F, delightful after 18 months of unrelenting tropical heat. By the following morning we would arrive at Amingaon to cross the Brahmaputra.

Unknown to me the final approach of the railway line to the Amingaon “Ghat”, or ferry loading point, was hazardous. Here the Brahmaputra was about a mile wide. I awoke at dawn and sat up in bed with a start. The train had been disconnected and remarshalled. I was now at the front end of a train of four wagons, with a snorting locomotive bringing up the rear and pushing us forward in determined fashion.

I had an alarming grand stand view of a hundred yards of track running ahead supported on timber cribwork over a muddy beach a long way below. If all went well my wagon and one other would finish up on a short length of rails straddling a barge, side by side with several others. Visible nearby were two or three wagons half submerged in the mud, mute testimony to the occasional fallibility of the system.

Such a scene is the subject of Figure 35 in Vol.II of the official history “The War Against Japan” which heads this chapter. I suspect it was taken when the river was much higher than when I first saw it. Two weeks later it fell low enough to halt the ferry completely for some weeks causing rail traffic jams on the L of C reaching back to Calcutta. The casual-looking timber cribwork structure was in an almost continual state of adjustment by hard working gangs of labourers, deftly removing or inserting the timber baulks to adjust the height and slope of the railway line according to the water level and changes in the river bed. It was an engineer’s nightmare but also a tribute to their skill.

This ferry transhipped up to 250 wagons per day in each direction, representing over 50 per cent of the total supply requirement for the Central and Northern fronts at that time. The capacity was later trebled. When loaded each pair of barges would be lashed either side of a steam tugboat and sailed across to the Pandu Ghat on the south bank, two miles from Gauhati.

On occasions during the next two years I often visited our No.8 Engineer Store Depot, perched on the south bank of the Brahmaputra at Pandu. The continual puffing of the locomotives loading and unloading wagons on both sides never ceased. It was a dominant sound heard 24 hours a day as the railway kept supplies rolling on this extraordinary L of C.The whole operation was a tribute both to the skill of the railwaymen who rarely lost a wagon, and of the British and American air forces who maintained air superiority. As far as I am aware this vital link was never bombed by the Japanese.

Once across the Brahmaputra my detachment rejoined 345 Company now regrouping at No.8 Engineer Store Depot at Pandu. The heavy equipment brought up by rail from Santahar continued by rail to Manipur Road Station for off loading. Our four Park (Stores) Sections were to remain to operate No. 8 E S D at Pandu commanded by our officer in charge of Stores Sections, Captain R K Redgrove R E.

200 miles further forward, at Manipur Road Advanced Base, the first nine miles of the Imphal road to the State of Manipur and the Burma frontier at Tamu, ran straight through the Nambhor rain forest until it entered the Naga Hills via the Nichugard Gorge. At Milestone 3 we were to install and operate with our HQ and two Workshop Sections each of 65 men, an Engineer Base Workshop, reporting to Lt Col E M Kelly, CRE 110 Works (Indian) whose HQ was located at Milestone 4.

The many units comprising the Base were strung out along the nine miles. For concealment from enemy air observation each unit was situated in partial clearings in the Nambhor Forest, entered from the Imphal Road. From Rangapahar,seven miles south of Manipur Road station, a branch line of the Bengal and Assam Railway penetrated the Nambhor Forest as far as 2 ESBD.

It was inadvisable to wander in the Nambhor Forest. About fifty years earlier a Havildar and three sepoys of the Assam Rifles fort at Nichugard, entered it for a day s “shikar” (hunting). Although experienced woodcraftmen they became lost. Despite rifles fired by the party and the regular firing of a gun by the fort the three sepoys were never found. Twelve days later a goatherd found the Havildar at the edge of the forest at Dimapur, bled white by leeches and nearly dead. he said that they had lost their bearings due to the continuous dense green canopy.

On an occasional Sunday afternoon I would walk alone along this now rarely used Rangapahar branch line, collecting exotic butterflies which were attracted to the creosote in the sleepers, including on one occasion an Atlas moth with a wingspan of over one foot. The line was in an almost totally enclosed tunnel in the rain forest canopy. For safety I was careful to leave word of my whereabouts and to stay on the railway track.

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Message 1 - Lieutenant John Noble Elisha Indian Engineers (post War Lt Col, Indian Army ndianArmy

Posted on: 01 December 2004 by Alan Shaw

I would be delighted to hear from relatives in Bombay or Madras of John or his aunt Mrs Rajamanikum of 1943 days in Madras!


Alan L Shaw

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