by James Douglas Plumley, MC, MM
In April 1944, I didn't know whether I would see the end of the War in Burma - whether I would survive or not - but if I did, I knew that I would have a story to tell.
Ever since then, the events have remained vivid in my mind, but an active Army career and an equally bus) civilian one, not to mention the raising of a family, afforded me no time to put pen to paper, but now I am retired the opportunity has come.
Here is just one of those stories.
My story begins early in 1944, when the Japanese launched operations aimed at a full-scale invasion of India. During the first week of April, Japanese troops had cut the Manipur road between Dimapur and Kohima, as well as cutting the road to Imphal. My platoon of a company of the 7th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, in which I was a corporal, was transported forward by road, railway and air, with great urgency and with some confusion, to help stem the Japanese advance. The village of Zubza, some 5 miles north-west of Kohima, was occupied and this became our Brigade HQ and, eventually, 2nd Division HQ, and was used as a base. Zubza became, for some of us, something of a haven from the rigours of the jungle we were soon to experience, for it was here that, on rare occasions, we returned for a wash, a set of replacement clothes and, if we were lucky, even a new pair of boots. Disused rectangular water-tank sections were cut up and converted into hip baths - a real luxury for most of us, enabling us to escape, if only temporarily, from steaming hot sultry days.
The orders for my patrol were to occupy a collapsed wooden bridge, a few miles from Zubza, which had been blown up by the Japanese. The intention was to hold the bridge site, occupy the immediate area and await the sappers' arrival to repair it. Raw and inexperienced as we were, with no previous fighting experience, we were initially nervous, never quite knowing what we might meet next as we marched along. In the distance, the eerie drums of the Naga tribes people beat out their mysterious messages into the night. Our orders to march silently and stealthily conflicted with the din made by the army vehicles passing us on the road! Yet more incongrous was the order not to smoke for fear of discovery by the Japanese and yet one could see the dixie blow-lamps lighting up the local area, where troops were taking a well earned rest and hot meal! My answer, therefore, to the men who wanted to smoke, in this rather ridiculous situation, was, "Don't get caught!"
We began to dig in alongside the road, with Vickers machine-guns covering the road. In the silence of the night, everyone was tense andanxious to the degree that a mere ripple of wind or slight movement was enough to let rip with the guns even though no-one was there.
At dawn, we stood to and the depleted platoon, all 26 of us, including the Sergeant in charge of us, was ordered to move up the road, trudging along complete with heavy packs and kit. Strewn along the way, lay an assortment of Bren gun magazines and ammunition, which were duly picked up, the odd sock, cap, notebooks, paper and bloody bandages, blowing in the light breeze. No transport appeared, yet quietly as we marched along in our hob-nail boots - just as birds at the first sign of fear suddenly fly off - so did we instinctively rush for the nearest ditch, speaking in hushed and breathless whispers. The Sergeant picked up odd bits of rather sinister-looking equipment, with care, fearsome of booby traps and hidden mines. Then - we came upon the blown bridge.
In the early morning light - there it was - some couple of hundred yards or so away - just around the bend of the road. Not a sign of life was to be seen - it all looked so innocuous. Suspicious as we had grown, it was decided to leave one of the three sections on a plateau commanding the bend and our rear. From the plateau, the Section Commander, together with his PIAT (projector infantry anti-tank), Bren and Sten guns as well as rifles, could command a view to other hills nearby.
As for the rest of us, we moved gingerly, perspiring streams in the gathering heat of the day, but with growing confidence and composure, towards the bridge. One section, with the Platoon Commander (a sergeant) with his 2 inch mortar, advanced to the broken bridge. There they spread out in the undergrowth, close to the bridge, under which lay a dried-up river-bed. I, with my section, lay in a ditch, just short of the bridge and the advanced section, and kipped down.
Suddenly, not far away on a bend of the road, a little distance beyond the bridge, there appeared a figure. In an area deserted except for us, that dark silhouette against the glare of the burning sun came as a shock to us. Then, before we could speak, he started gesticulating and seemed to be waving at us, beckoning us on towards him. We could clearly dinstinguish his greenish pullover, khaki drill trousers, gaiters and cap comforter. Yet, even stranger was the fact that he appeared unarmed, but there he was, frantically waving us on towards him - whilst completely exposed on that deserted bend of the road. He didn't appear to be a Jap - he was more like an Indian - yet you could never be certain. Hadn't our lectures warned us of Jap trickery and deception? Perhaps he was from the Indian National Army. We were puzzled and began shouting insults at him.
I waved to him to come to us and others around me did so too, shouting at him in broken Hindustani and even more coarse British language! Yet I didn't like it - I felt uneasy and wary. All of a sudden he bent down, turned his head and began talking to someone - but too far away for us to distinguish what language he spoke. Our suspicions were even more aroused: he was receiving instructions from somebody! More and more waving followed and then, to our consternation, he came strolling down the road in a casual and uncertain manner. He continued to come on - all alone - and, when he was within earshot, I rose slowly and cautiously approached him. We came face to face at last.
"Japani wallah??" I bawled.
"Nay mallum, sahib (don't understand)!" he replied, keeping his head lowered, with hands together in a Uriah Heep-like manner of greeting -but his eyes would not meet mine. Still I was wary. What was he doing here? Perhaps the Indian felt he could do no more. That he had, perhaps, decided he had no further part to play in this drama remained uncertain, but one thing was clear, he had had enough and gave up there and then, trundling over to where our men lay, curling up on the rough ground and sheltering as best he could, in what little shade there was, from the rays of the sun.
"Keep him covered - keep an eye on him all the time," I ordered the others, as he bent down and crouched in the trench with us.
In the shallower section of the nullah, it was possible to walk across or along it and it was then that the Sergeant made a fatal decision. He insisted on going alone to find a position, higher up, for one section. Off he went, up towards the plateau and eventually disappeared from view. We waited and waited. Silence - yet more silence. We never saw him again, nor did we ever discover what happened to him.
Then the Corporal with his section strung out by the bridge, decided to find a position on the hill. He and his men were over half-way up, when he shouted back to us, "There's a couple of Japs up here!"
Our answering shouts showed we didn't believe him.
"Shall I describe 'em to you?" he bawled. "They've got camouflaged clothing - machine guns with netting over the top of them and they're wearing steel helmets!"
I just couldn't believe it. Had his imagination gone wild? Was he seeing things? Even if they were Japs, why hadn't they fired on him, especially if he and his men were that close to them?
"Sure they're not Indians?" I shouted
"B…….y Indians don't have slant eyes, do they!" he yelled back.
All this was happening in a matter of seconds and was quite fantastic; if he was so close to them, why didn't they fire? If he could see them, surely they must have seen him and his section.
In a flash, it dawned on me why the Indian had wanted to persuade us to move around the next bend - there must be Japs waiting to ambush us there and these two Japs, whom the Corporal was looking at on the hill close to us, had in all probability received orders not to fire on us until ordered.
There being no Sergeant now to give orders, I assumed command and shouted to the Corporal to get his section up the hill and that I would send up the Bren gun. One of the men scrambled up the hill with the Bren. Then I shouted to the Corporal,
"Tell them to come out or you'll fire, after counting five!"
I could hear him yelling at them, then - one -two - three - four - five! Then his Bren gun opened up and blood curdling screams came from the two Japs.
Without warning, machine-gun and rifle-fire erupted, with bullets flying everywhere - from the bend of the road where the Indian had first begun waving at us, from the plateau up which the Corporal and his section had attempted to climb until they had seen the couple of Japs. Our section in the rear and my section in the roadside ditch were all firing back. In the pandemonium that followed, our Corporal's section on the slope ran like hell, slithering down the gradient and falling over each other to get into the safety of ditches lower down. At the same time, Jap troops were clambering for all they were worth, complete with their heavy equipment, from the bend in the road to the safety of the foxholes they had dug for themselves on the plateau, to be with their comrades.
I directed our section in the roadside ditch towards targets to fire at. One man wouldn't move - he wouldn't expose himself in any way and didn't fire a single shot. He seemed mesmerised. Heatedly, I screamed at him, "Don't you want to survive?" - but it was no use - he just lay there.
Then, unexpectedly - silence! After what seemed ages, all firing ceased. Deathly quiet - an eerie and frightening stillness. We remained alert, watching, waiting.
Abruptly, it all began again - complete uproar -machine-guns chattering, whining bullets flying one knew not where - just bedlam - and then, once more, that hushed quietness, almost calm.
Sweating in the murderous heat, I knew without doubt, it had meant to be an ambush!!
In the next few minutes, there followed a weird distant clinking sound.
"Do you hear that?" I whispered to the others.
"Y-e-s, don't know what it is though," said someone. We strained and listened.
"Good God!" replied another excitedly, "sounds like bayonets being fixed on to rifles."
How right he was - they were going to rush us!
"Grenades ready!" I shouted and immediately we took them out, began pulling the pins and waiting to throw them. We could hear movement crashing down through the undergrowth, but in our haste some threw them too hastily. Explosions erupted in the shrubs and bushes ahead of us -then moaning and painful cries. Well, we had stopped them in their tracks. I even had time to replace my pin. Other Japs came down the road, crossed it and attemped to reach our ditch. Somehow, we kept firing at them, even though a few of us were wounded; a black Jamaican soldier fell dead right in front of me. Now we felt we were not going to be relieved, so we thought it best to withdraw from this blown bridge area. We crawled along to those in the road ditch - some were wounded, some fit. We had to get round the corner and retire. A runner was sent down the road to inform the CO that the Japanese had been contacted. Only the wounded and automatic rifles were to be carried back. Only two wounded could be carried at a time - everyone else giving covering fire upon the whistle being blown. The mortar was to be sent back and, after that, the mortar bombs. We now had the mortar and waited for what seemed ages for the mortar bombs, but they never came.
Bullets came winging our way, as both the fit and wounded retired to the bend where the Corporal and his section had defended our rear.
The soldier with the PIAT gun had been killed and somewhere on that hill lay that gun which was on the secret list. Informing the Corporal that I intended retrieving the gun, I crawled up the hill alone and then met withering machine-gun fire. "This is no good," I thought. "Best to leave it and withdraw with the others." I scrambled down the slope, joined the rest, handing over our waving Indian friend to the privates. I urged them to keep a rifle trained on him at all times and if they had the slightest trouble with him to shoot him, butthis never arose as he didn't cause the slightest trouble.
Keeping our eyes skinned and our senses alert, we retired along the road until, in the distance, what seemed to be a small building appeared. We observed it closely through binoculars, and were puzzled to detect some movement within the building. A figure emerged, holding his hands out in front, and, as he approached us, hovering around him were swarms of flies. As he came close to us, he pushed out his swollen hands, covered in flies, and pointing to bullets holes in the palms. An Indian, he was in much pain, yet he seemed to relax and, indicating his hands, said, "Japani wallah, sahib."
"Keep an eye on him, as well, even with hands like this," I said.
So now we had two Indians with us.
Movement along the road was slow and tedious. With bullets flying overhead and around us, every man was given his orders - one to look to the left, one to the right, another in front and another to the rear. Everyone had his part to play - the wounded being helped on and all of us stopping at intervals for rest in the intense heat. Able at last to take a short breather, it was time to take stock. Everyone was lined up in a ditch and checked. Four of us had been killed; we had nine wounded with us - only half the platoon was unscathed. Three Bren guns and sten guns were serviceable but, "Where is the 2 inch mortar?" I said to an Irish soldier.
"I chucked the b…….y thing away over there somewhere," he mumbled, indicating vaguely where he had dropped it.
"Then, get over there and bring it back!" I shouted.
Before I had time to turn away, quick as a flash, he raised and stuck his rifle into my stomach and, while we glared angrily at each other, I whipped up my sten gun to his nose, saying, "You put one into me and I'll put 30 into you."
Gradually, he lowered the rifle and went back, whereupon I said, "I will cover you." He returned to the spot, which was not too far back, picked up the mortar and returned with it. From then on, I was always on my guard with him - he evidently didn't like me and I mistrusted him and always ensured he was in front of me.
On our trek out to the blown bridge from Zubza, we had passed a mound which had had a good field of view. We had been puzzled as to whether that mound was really a Japanese bunker position. When we had passed it some days before, all had been silent with no sign of movement. Now, as we turned a bend in the road, we came upon it once more, yet everything was so different this time. Quite a battle was going on, with the Japs holed-up in the bunker, so they had, in all likelihood, been hiding there when we had originally passed by, doubtless allowing us to move on in order to ambush us later. Burnt-out lorries and vehicles were strewn along the road. Then an artillery barrage rained down on the bunker. Explosions ripped around it, then all firing ceased. Listening - and watching through the binoculars - I gave orders to conserve ammunition and not to fire unless any movement was spotted.
Slowly but cautiously we struggled along with our wounded, step by step, keeping under what cover we could find along the road, and thankfully staggered into Zubza, erroneously thinking (as we were soon to discover) this it was a place of refuge.
In Zubza, I reported to the Company Commander on our mission to the blown bridge. "Any casualties?" he inquired.
"Four killed, nine wounded, one missing," I replied.
"Oh, God!" he said and no sooner had he spoken than a sudden mortar barrage came whistling down, in a devastating ear - shattering crash, with mortars exploding on the surface with a high - pitched whine. The Company Commander was seriously wounded and was taken away to casualty. The barrage lasted nearly 15 minutes and there were lots of casualties, but none among my men.
The Major took over the company, whilst I was despatched with my platoon to a nearby knoll. Another platoon, which had seen no action, was kept in reserve, so I felt somewhat aggrieved, considering what my men had already endured. However, from our knoll w could look down into the jungle clearing. We were in our dug-outs and I began firing with the sten gun as the Japs attempted to cross the clearing, but the range of the stens was short and accuracy poor. We even tried to "hose-pipe" the clearing with bullets, but to little avail.
A message came for me to report to Company HQ - I was to return to the blown bridge area and retrieve the PIAT left on the hill. As I was now Platoon Commander, I chose the men to accompany me, but my Corporal wanted to go and get it, as he said it was his section that had left it there and therefore it was his responsibility. An argument ensued, so I suggested we both went and the Company Commander agreed.
In the meantime, the Cameron Highlanders had been moving on to the hills which dominated the blown bridge area, but farther away and out of sight of it.
So I took my fighting patrol along, with a sapper Lieutenant who would measure and do what he could to repair the bridge. Although I was now Sergeant in charge of the platoon, that sapper Officer never interferred with my orders and gave me full and undivided support. We set out with our rations and blackened faces.
Eventually we reached the Camerons, who were now entrenched on the high hills, with a view towards Kohima. The CO of the Camerons said that the blown bridge was miles away and was indeed close to Kohima itself, but I argued that the bridge was much nearer. The Lieutenant-Colonel and Second-in-Command were very difficult to convince, however, and became fed up with me, insisting that the blown bridge was a long way off and not close at hand as I, a mere Sergeant, was contesting.
"Did you actually see it?" they asked.
"Why, of course," I replied, "I was there in the last 24 hours or so."
Still they were not persuaded and yet another Officer was brought in to confirm their conviction. Believe me, it is not easy as an NCO trying to convince an array of Officers, and Senior Officers at that!! Still believing myself to be correct as to the close proximity of the bridge I nevertheless, very reluctantly, agreed to seek out their far-off bridge.
Before starting out with my patrol, I ascertained from an observation post what would be our safest route. At first, we were forced to cross open ground, always dangerous and hazardous, with little cover and complete exposure to the enemy. We were glad to reach a line of trees parallel to the road and thread our way as quietly as we could, taking full advantage of the trees. Then we crossed more open country, but, very thankfully, passed unspotted. Next, we found ourselves moving into more jungle-style country, the uneven surfaces causing us to stagger and stumble. By now, we had come much closer to Kohima and, quite abruptly, we halted and dived for cover, for, not far ahead, on either side of the road, little round fox-holes and rectangular trenches could be seen. Were they occupied? Certainly they looked deserted, but with the Japs you could never say for sure. We waited and waited and then cautiously moved forward crawling along on our bellies. Not a sound came from either the trenches or the fox-holes. With growing confidence, we reached and by-passed them. Darkness began to envelop us - the tropical sunset being short-lived, maybe only 20 minutes, compared with our longer dusk at home. Soon it was completely dark - a kind of velvet blackness. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face and, hiding as we were under the trees, only a small bit of sky might occasionally appear through the overhead branches. Silence was the order of the night - for this was when the Jap stalked like a leopard in the dark, making staccato and broken-English calls. So everyone remained perfectly quiet and when someone began to snore he was quickly thumped.
Some hours later, we were rudely woken by the familiar sound of mortar shells, small-arms fire and the rattle of machine-guns. Yet none of it concerned us. We were mere spectators of the carnage of Kohima, a short distance away. Explosions rent the air and soon the red glow of fires filled the sky, reminding me of the red skies of blitzed cities at home. Yet a raging battle was going on in the town, with our troops desperately trying to hold on at all costs. Above the din and noise of battle, we sensed that we could hear the shouts and cries of men, whether ours or Japs was not clear. The orange glow continued through the night with buildings on fire silhouetted against the reddish sky, occasionally with bits of timber and equipment shooting up. The scene was punctuated by gunfire and explosions - and all we could do was gaze and listen. A new light came into the heavens - it was the moon, which seemed to add a further strangeness to the scene before us.
Dawn broke at last and within twenty minutes it was broad daylight. Using my binoculars from a clear vantage point, I saw only a short distance ahead of us, the bridge, the one my senior officers had claimed was the blown bridge! Alas, they were wrong! As I thought, we had been on a wild goose chase! This was not the blown bridge!
So, once more, the trek back commenced, grumbling soldiers swearing what they would do if they got their b…… hands on …… ' In the circumstances, one could not entirely blame them!
Keeping to ditches, cover of the trees and jungle, at last we arrived back at the blown bridge, weary, yet relieved to be safe. Observing the bridge from a nullah and scanning the area with my binoculars, I saw no movement, so my sapper officer companion and I cautiously approached the bridge. Soon the sapper had inspected it and measured the repairs that would be needed, all done in the blazing heat of the cloudless day, quietly cursing and sweating as the minutes ticked by.
Soon we were glad to be clambering up the slopes to the Cameron positions; we were almost safe! Yet disasters could have struck us. The password was, "Random Harvest" - chosen, it, was believed, because it was claimed the Japanese couldn't pronounce 'R's properly!!
"Halt, who goes there!" cried out the Cameron sentry.
I hesitated. For some moments my memory failed me. "Oh, God!" I thought, "What were the words?" Then to my relief, they came to me! "Random Harvest!" As I passed the sentries, I was met with some banter about that incident and deservedly so too!
I gained some small satisfaction from informing the CO that we had been given the wronginformation and that I had been correct in my original judgement.
"Will you be prepared to occupy the blown-up position if given a patrol to accompany you?" I was asked. I agreed and once more it was back to the bridge, with the Cameron Highlanders as escort, and they eventually occupied the position.
Finally, we withdrew to Zubza and slept and slept and slept. I awoke to violent pains in the stomach and found I could not keep down any water. Into the make-shift casualty ward of the hospital I went, near Dimapur. It was appalling there - no female nurses, just male orderlies, almost dead on their feet, doing their utmost to relive the sick and the wounded, who were lying all over the place - on charpoys and on the floor, most covered in dirt, filth and bloody bandages, amid the stench of urine and vomit, with the incessant flies buzzing around men with broken limbs and hideous wounds. The wounded seemed almost unconcerned and oblivious to their true condition, many appearing content to continue to lie in areas unprotected from the torturing sun.
Eventually, I recovered and hitched a lift back to Zubza - to our comparative haven!
What would become of us next, none of us knew. Would we be called upon to make more sacrifices? We knew we would. Nor would we see our loved ones at home for many a long day, for the Japanese offensive had only just begun and we still had our part to play.
But that will be another story …….