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A lieutenant with two pips

by Genevieve

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Anthony Cave-Browne-Cave D.S.O., A.R.I.B.A.
Location of story: 
Sumatra, Burma
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 January 2006

I was a lieutenant with two pips. and was very conscious of being responsible for the lives of people who were in some cases old enough to be my father. They were all fairly mature. I was still then only 19. All the fuss about me getting a DSO was because I was only 19. After the war when they were dishing out all the medals, I never got a defence medal. Everybody got a defence medal! When I enquired, they said, ‘You haven’t had enough non-operational service to warrant one’. They never gave me enough time in England to warrant one.

We came out of Burma; looking back it was a bit of a hairy time. The battalion had gone up where the Chindits had gone. It was not a pleasant situation, but I can think of an amusing incident. Our colonel, when the monsoons arrived, carried an umbrella it did hardly any good in the monsoon, but typically British.

We spent a Christmas in the jungle. About two or three days before Christmas, we had a visit from the great general, Vinegar Joe Stilwell, and he said, ‘Boys, you’re doing all right,’ and all this sort of thing, ‘Christmas is coming…’ We lived on American K-rations. That didn’t mean bully-beef or any of these things, which were the British troops’ rations. It was a plasticky box; I should think about 9 inches long, 4 inches wide and an inch and a half thick. Inside, there was all you would need for a meal. You had 3 of these for the day. You stood this box on the ground — you were also supplied with matches — and you lit it. You could stick your mess-can on top, and it would boil enough to make your tea. But we had horrible things, everything in little tins; things like cheese and smoked ham and things, all mixed up - typically American. Terrible stuff. I can’t remember all the other food, but nothing ordinary like of jam. Even corned beef would have been nice. When Vinegar Joe came and said Christmas was coming, we thought, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.’
He said. ‘The boys will look after you.’
It was ‘Oh, thank you.’ And off he goes. Well the boys did look after us, because the following day, Dakotas came over. All our supplies had to be by air, none of them came by. When we made a road, we made a track. We tried not to use an existing track, because they were the most likely to be covered by the Japanese, although we probably made so much noise cutting the new one that they knew where we were anyway, but the thing became ‘walkable’, then it became ‘muleable’, then it became ‘jeepable’ , and ‘truckable eventually, but we only had a few trucks, the most important was the water truck, and then the guns could come up, but it took so long to get the guns up that we never saw them at all. If we ever had air support — I think in Europe they had about a thousand bomber raids — we were really doing well if we had two aeroplanes to support us. They had to drop all our supplies from the air; some with parachutes if there was a clearing, otherwise it was what we called ‘free drops’, just a basket container with various things in. They pushed them out of the plane, and the weight of them crashed through the canopy of the trees, hopefully to get down to ground level, because, of course, parachutes would get tangled up. Anyway, the boys came. I should think today, the animal protection people would be in horror. They dropped baskets, with two little piglets in each and others with chickens — all alive. Although on parachutes more often than not the wicker baskets— crashed through the trees, and they broke open. Dozens of soldiers were dashing round everywhere, trying to catch pigs to have for our dinner. That was the only time we ever saw any Burmese people, they’d all disappeared, there’d never been anybody, anywhere, but they appeared from nowhere out of the jungle, chasing these pigs, obviously wanting to get them before we did. I don’t know who organised it, but we agreed to give them so many pigs and so many chickens if they would try and make us a bit more comfortable. We weren’t under any attack at the time, so they cleared a patch, they cut bamboos down and made benches for us and stools along the side in no time at all. We gave them their pigs and we had roast pork and chicken for Christmas and the Americans didn’t forget cans of beer and the like.

I’ve still got all my uniform, and all my jungle gear down in a box in the garage. It was a canvas sort of material, or a bit lighter because it was very warm and sticky. You had a jacket with a belt on it and trousers, and you wore boots with puttees to keep the bugs out. You used to get leeches and horrible things. As we normally just slept on the ground, depending on circumstances, sometimes you didn’t sleep at all, but when you’d got the opportunity, you made a bed by cutting some bamboo poles, we all had groundsheets. They were about six foot long by about four or five foot wide, and they had holes in with brass eyelets to lace it up. We put two poles in then laced it up underneath like a bag then put other poles in to stretch it apart. Then cut big ones, four legs, to make yourself a bed. That was more comfortable. The officers had these rather thick canvas sleeping bags, a good three foot wide. In the top end was a bag that virtually made a pillow, in which you put all your clothes. It folded over — there was one flap, then a bigger flap. You could tie it down, then there was a smaller packet at the bottom that you could put your feet in if you wanted to. You rolled that up, then it got strapped up then that moved on after you. You didn’t carry it yourself. You had enough job carrying your food — if they gave you three days rations, that was nine flippin’ boxes to carry, plus all your own ammunition. We always had plenty to carry. The food was really quite good when we got to a base where we could stop for a day or two and the battalion cooks could prepare food for you. We had some Ghurkhas with us. They were all part of the brigade. A division is quite a lot of people. A division has three brigades and a brigade was three battalions and a battalion has three companies and a company has three platoons, so it’s a lot of people we’re talking about.
The 36 Division was commanded by a General Festing, our Brigade by Brigadier Askett and our Battalion by Colonel Cresswell.

On one occasion, my platoon went and camped in a deserted hamlet. We were there for some days, Doing recces and things like that during the day. We’d only been there a few hours when a Burmese monk in his orange robes with a young lad carrying an elaborate umbrella came along to the other end of the track. They just stood there, then the monk went off and sat down. We didn’t take any notice of them really. The boy came up later in the day carrying two bowls — begging bowls for food, so we gave them some. This went on every day while we were there twice a day. When he could see we were eating, he’d come. No-one spoke. We would not have understood what they were saying if they had. When he could see we were packing up and about to go, the young lad took my hand and pulled, I let him take me up to his monk. The monk took my hand, and he put in it a tiny little ruby and then closed my hand over it. I brought it back — it was only very small — and I eventually had something made out of it for our ruby wedding. We did go through Moguk, where the ruby mines and they sold other stones there, or produced them. I bought some and exchanged them for a tin of corned beef ( a rare possession)and a pair of khaki shorts. I brought them home. The tin of corned beef, less its label and called lambs I may say was an exchange from some Indian troops. Corned beef was quite precious to me, but I wanted the stones. Others said, ‘I don’t know why you bother about them, they’re only Mephaquin bottles. We had to take Mephaquin, which was a quinine type of thing. It turned one yellow. You didn’t realise it because everybody was the same, but when I came back on leave, I was as yellow as anything. But the stones, I thought they were sapphires. I had them looked at by a jeweller when I came home; he said the green ones weren’t any good, but the others were quite nice. I had some of them made up into an engagement ring when I met Diana [my wife]. Twenty years later she had earrings made to match.

On our way out, we flew down from North Burma to Mandalay — they had just taken Mandalay and were pushing on towards Rangoon. Our Battalion was sent there. We had one more battle up in the Shan Hills in South Burma, but I wasn’t involved in that because I’d had malaria and I’d been sent to hospital — our own local hospital. I’d just come out and I was sitting beside a dusty road leaning against a tree waiting to be picked up from my unit, and I shall always remember, a jeep roared past then screeched to a halt, and this chap yelled out, ‘The war’s over’.
I didn’t even get up. I said, ‘Which one?’
‘The one in Europe.’
‘Oh… thought it was.’
Although it sounds hard, it meant absolutely nothing to us. I could say that I went on fighting a war for two years after that. After that battle we got sent back to India for a rest, to Poona, which is right down in Southern India. Poona is a long way; it’s a 5 day train journey from Calcutta to Bombay. On the way into Burma, all the officers had left their big boxes of kit — you couldn’t carry those in the jungle — we left them at Cox and King’s depot Calcutta in store. When we came back down to Poona they decided we really could do with our kit. There wasn’t any argument about that. The only thing was, at that time Calcutta was out of bounds because of Indian Independence disturbances. You could go on holiday to Bombay and those places, so the adjutant decided — I don’t know who thought it up or whether he did, but they picked the two youngest most naïve officers — that was me and one other chap. He said, ‘We want you to go to Calcutta to get the officers’ kit, but I must tell you it’s out of bounds. I want you to go to the railway station, and ask for a railway ticket to Bombay via Calcutta.’
From Poona, Bombay was about like going to Shrewsbury from North Wales and Calcutta was like going to the south of France. It was a thousand miles or more. It took five days and we had just come from there.
‘Under no circumstances whatsoever must you have a ticket to Calcutta from Bombay.’
It took us about 20 minutes or more to persuade the ticket bloke in the office at Poona to give us a ticket like this, and he only did it then, I think, because people were queuing up at the back, but eventually he wrote it that way. Every time the ticket was checked on the route, they said, ‘This is nonsense, he should have written Calcutta via Bombay.’
But we went all the way to Calcutta and collected 2 railway wagons full of kit and came all the way back.

'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Genevieve Tudor of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf Anthony Cave-Browne-Cave and has been added to the site with. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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